Content style guide - Formatting and punctuation

Abbreviations, acronyms, capitalisation and other content styles.

Abbreviations and acronyms

We explain an abbreviation or acronym in full on its first use unless it's well known, like UK, NHS, GP. Then we refer to it by initials.

Example: A body mass index (BMI) above the healthy weight range can increase your risk of serious health problems.

Apostrophes

We use straight, not curly apostrophes. Take care when pasting in text.

Do not use Use
you’ll you'll

Read more about contractions like "you'll" and "can't" in the contractions section.

Capitalisation

We do not use block capitals as they're difficult for people to read.

We always use lower case, including page titles. The exception is proper nouns and examples in the GOV.UK style guide capitalisation list.

Generic drug names start lower case. Brand names get an initial capital letter, except where the brand uses lower case itself.

Examples:

  • Codeine comes mixed with paracetamol (co-codamol) or with aspirin (co-codaprin) or with ibuprofen (Nurofen Plus).
  • Watch these healthtalk.org videos.

Conditions are lower-case except where they start with a proper name.

Examples:

  • cancer of the colon
  • multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Alzheimer's disease

But note: caesarean section.

Contractions

We use contractions like you'll, we'll, you're and what's. Often contractions make content friendlier and easier to read.

Do not use negative contractions like can't and don't. When you’re telling users not to do something, use "Do not" rather than "Don't".

Avoid should've, could've, would've and they've. They can be hard to read.

Research insight

GDS research shows that many users find negative contractions harder to read and they sometimes misread them as the opposite of what they say.

The NHS.UK medicines team observed that, when we're telling people not to do something, they find do not clearer and more emphatic than "don't".

Hyphens and dashes

Hyphens

We avoid using hyphens unless it confuses people to leave them out.

We do use a hyphen for:

  • non-alcoholic
  • non-drowsy
  • sugar-free

We do not use a hyphen for:

  • anticoagulant
  • beta blockers
  • breastfeeding
  • long term and short term

Dashes

Avoid using dashes to indicate a pause. Instead use a comma, or write shorter sentences.

We use "to" instead of a dash for ranges of numbers, dates or time.

Research insight

There are some accessibility concerns with dashes. Assistive technologies read them out in different ways. But GOV.UK research shows that commas are consistently read out with a pause.

People with poor literacy can find hyphens and dashes an obstacle to easy reading. They also find long sentences with lots of commas difficult.

Lists

Use lists to make text easier to read.​

Bulleted lists should be short and snappy. If possible, limit your list to no more than 6 items.​ Each item in the list should be roughly the same length.

We use bullet points in care cards and Do and Don’t lists.

Lists with a lead-in line

This is our preferred list style.

Use a lead-in line with a colon. The bullets should make sense running on from the lead-in line. In effect, the list is 1 continuous sentence.

Example:

A pharmacist can recommend:

  • creams to ease pain and irritation
  • antiviral creams to speed up healing time
  • cold sore patches to protect the skin while it heals

Each bullet point starts lower case and has no punctuation at the end, including after the last point.

Do not include more than 1 sentence at each bullet point.

Avoid ending a bullet point with "and" and "or". Use the lead-in to let people know the options.

Full sentence lists

If your user research shows that it helps your users, you can use full sentence bullet points. For example, our medicines information uses full sentence bullet points for key facts.

Example:

Key facts

  • Paracetamol takes up to an hour to work.
  • The usual dose of paracetamol is one or two 500mg tablets at a time.
  • Do not take paracetamol with other medicines containing paracetamol.
  • Paracetamol is safe to take in pregnancy and while breastfeeding, at recommended doses.
  • Brand names include Disprol, Hedex, Medinol and Panadol.

Each bullet point should be distinct information, start with a capital letter and end with a full stop. There should be no lead in line.

Numbered lists

We use numbered lists instead of bulleted ones to guide people through a process. Each point starts with a capital letter and ends with a full stop, without a lead-in line.

Example:

How to gargle with salt water:

  1. Dissolve half a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water.
  2. Gargle with the solution then spit it out – don't swallow it.
  3. Repeat as often as you like.

Quotation marks

We generally use straight double quotes:

  • when quoting another source
  • for unusual or colloquial terms, for example: Diuretics are sometimes called "water pills" because they make you pee more.

Don't overdo quotation marks though. They can be distracting and are often unnecessary.

Use single quotes for:

  • quotes within quotes, for example: "'Helicopter parenting' linked to behavioural problems in children," reports The Independent.
  • headlines
  • captions
  • large-type quotes

Get in touch

If you’ve got a question about the NHS digital service manual or want to feedback, get in touch.

Updated: December 2019