Words and Usage

Words and how we use them here at ACF.

If  you have a suggestion of terms that should be added to this list, please contact ACF Digital Communications.


AP style doesn't capitalize "acting" when it is part of a job title. However, Acting is a term of law when applied to a person holding an HHS position because an acting holder of a position can have different levels of responsibility than a permanent appointee. Therefore, "acting" should be treated as a part of the formal title – capitalized when appearing before the name and lowercase when appearing after.

Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg.

Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families.


When talking about an administration (as in a presidential administration) use lower case, per AP style.

The presidential administration established the law.

Affordable Care Act

Use “Affordable Care Act,” not “Obamacare.”

"ACA" is fine after the first reference.

Agency names and use of the word “the"

Use “the” before the agency name if the agency commonly is known by that usage, either in full or the acronym.

the Office of the Inspector General

the FDA

Chairman, chairwoman

Use “chairman," or  "chairwoman,” not “chairperson.”

Child, children

Child has a specific meaning in many ACF programs, and can imply age or situation — a child, a baby, or an infant. Children and kids are not necessarily interchangeable. "Kid" or "kids" can be seen as being less formal, and can imply that their issues are not as important.

Refer to your program to choose the most appropriate term.



Community-based is a compound adjective — it should be describing a noun (research, study, report, practice). So use “community-based,” not “community based.” Do not capitalize unless used in a title or heading.

Community-based practices are better because…

Commissioned Corps


Use lower case, except in a proper name.

This blog provides congressional news.

The provision is part of the Congressional Record.


Data refers both to the singular and plural.

The data in the report is clear.

However, some data are not clear.


In the context of members of Native communities, Elder should be capitalized. In American Indian communities, Elders are keepers of cultural heritage and traditions.


Do not use a dash, or capitalize the e.

Correct: email

Incorrect: e-mail, E-mail


Evidence-based is a compound adjective — it should be describing a noun (research, study, report, practice). So use “evidence-based,” not “evidence based” or “Evidence-Based.”

Evidence-based studies show...


Use lower case, except in a proper name.

the federal government

the Federal Reserve


Health care

Heath care is two words — “health care.”

The only exception is when referring to an organization that uses it as one word in their formal title, or a URL (Healthcare.gov)

Health and Human Services

Our parent agency should be referred to as the Department of Health and Human Services (note use of "the") or HHS.

Don't use DHHS.

Federal poverty level

Do not capitalize unless used in a title or heading. Use FPL only after explaining the acronym in the first mention.

The federal poverty level (FPL)

Farther vs. further

Farther refers to physical distance

He walked farther into the woods.

Further refers to an extension of time or degree

She will look further into the request.

Indian Country

A formal title, with both letters capitalized. Can be used to describe self-governing Native geographic areas, like reservations, or more generally to encompass physical locations and communities.

It/They for Organizations, Institutions, or Companies

An organization, institution, or a company is is an “it” and a group of people is a  “they.” A group of institutions is a plural, so is also “they.”

In terms of ACF grantees, it will depend on if you’re referring to one grantee (it) a group of grantee institutions (they) or a group of people from one institution (they)


  • The American Red Cross receives a grant from ACF. It has decided to….
  • Our grantees include the A organization, the B organization and the C organization. They all….
  • Our grantees came together for a meeting. They discussed….

One occasional exception: If a group of groups has a name, it can also be referred to as a singular "it".

Companies A, B, and C, formed Company Supergroup. It has taken on.....



The word "internet" should not be capitalized.


LGBT: Generally LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) is used for adults.

LGBTQ: The Q (questioning) is added when referring to children and youth.

LGBTQI: Use LGBTQI (Intersex) when referring to intersex populations.

LGBT and Two-Spirited Community: Use LGBT and Two-Spirited Community when referring to Native American communities.


Native should be capitalized, but words it describes do not need to be.

Native communities, Native peoples, Native language

Native can be used as a general descriptor to cover specific Native communities (American Indian, Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian)


Use “regardless,” not “irregardless.” Irregardless is not a word.


Capitalize "secretary" before a name only if it is an official corporate or organizational title, as it is at HHS. Don't abbreviate (Sec.)

The decision was made by Secretary Smith.


Seasons and their derivatives should be lowercased. This means that spring, summer, fall, and winter should all be lowercase along with any words that are formed from them, such as springtime, summertime, etc.

The four seasons are winter, spring, summer, and fall.

Spokesman, spokeswoman

Use “spokesman" or "spokeswoman.” Use "representative" if you do not know the sex of the individual, not “spokesperson.”


Use lowercase in when describing a location: the state of Maine, the states of Maine and Vermont.

Four states — Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia — are legally commonwealths rather than states. Make the distinction only in formal uses.

Tobacco is grown in the state of Kentucky.

 The commonwealth of Kentucky filed a suit,

Do not capitalize state when used simply as an adjective to specify a level of jurisdiction.

state Rep. William Smith

the state Transportation Department

state funds


Use “supersede” not “supercede” (but note that this word is not good plain language — try and avoid it altogether).

Teen, teenager, teenage

Use “teen” or “teenager,” not “teen-aged.”

That or which

No commas are used with “that” clauses. A “which” clause is surrounded by commas. If you can drop the clause and not lose the meaning of the sentence, use “which”; otherwise, use “that.”

I remember the day that we met.

The team, which finished last a year ago, is in first place.

For information about the use of "that" and "which" in legal documents, visit the Kent Law site Visit disclaimer page .


Though usually the pronoun should agree in number, it's becoming more common to use they as a gender-neutral or singular pronoun.  

It is particularly useful as a replacement for he/she, which can be confusing and not plain language, and instead of defaulting to male pronouns (read more about Inclusive Language and Conscious Style).

Other alternatives could include using a title that is gender-neutral (the grantee, the applicant), an indefinite (someone, anyone), or directly addressing the reader (you).

AP - Making a case for a singular ‘they’


Use “toward,” not “towards.”

We are moving toward a new system


A trademark is a brand, symbol, word, etc., used by a manufacturer or dealer and protected by law to prevent a competitor from using it. In general, use a generic equivalent unless the trademark name is essential to the story. When a trademark is used, capitalize it.

The stadium uses AstroTurf, and only serves Coke products. Other sodas are not allowed.

Tribe, Tribes, Indian tribes

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After first mention, Indian tribe can be replaced with “Tribe” or “Tribes”, capitalized to denote the formal title.

Use Tribe or Tribes rather than Native, as these terms have a more specific legal definition.


Use “upward,” not “upwards.

      The birds flew upward.


Per AP style, the abbreviation for United States is U.S., with periods.

A U.S. soldier

The U.S. Department of Agriculture...

The only exception is in headlines, when the periods can be dropped.


For Human Trafficking: When possible, use “individual who has experienced trafficking” instead of “victim” or “survivor.” In contexts discussing statutory responsibility or metrics, it may be appropriate to use “victim.” In contexts where an individual who has experienced trafficking refers to themselves as a survivor, it may be appropriate to use “survivor.” If the speaker is referring to their own experience, any option is appropriate.

website, webpage

Both "website" and "webpage" are one word — no dashes, no capital letters (unless it appears at the beginning of a sentence).

Ideally, these words would be used infrequently — "page" can be substituted, or if creating a link, can be avoided altogether.

The full set of guidance is available on the Policy page.

The Administration for Children and Families has more training.

ZIP code

Capital letters for ZIP (an acronym for Zoning Improvement Plan), code is lowercase.