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.

Aligning text

Left-align text in English.

Some people with cognitive differences have difficulty with blocks of text that are justified (aligned to left and right margins).

Also people who use screen magnifiers may miss text that is not left-aligned.

For translations into languages that run right to left (like Arabic), right-align instead.

Read about text alignment in the design system.

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.

Bold

Use bold in technical instructions to tell users which element (for example, a text input or button) to select. For example: Select More, then select Messages.

Use bold sparingly – too much bold makes it difficult for users to know which parts of your content they need to pay most attention to.

Do not use bold to emphasise text. To emphasise words or phrases, you can:

  • front-load sentences
  • use headings
  • use bullets

Capitalisation

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

We always use sentence 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:

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • cancer of the colon
  • Down's syndrome
  • multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson's disease
  • type 1 diabetes

But note: caesarean section.

Also see the entries for "Black or black" and "White or white" in the A to Z of NHS health writing.

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".

Contractions in URLs and page titles

Do not use contractions in URLs (web addresses). They can be unclear, hard to read, type and share. Some are ambiguous, like "shell" and "were" (for "she'll" and "we're").

If you can, avoid using contractions in page titles and H1s too. Ideally the page title and URL should be the same.

Full stops

Do not use full stops in headings, buttons or action links.

We do not use full stops in cards, where the card contains a single sentence and acts as a brief link to another page.

Hyphens and dashes

Hyphens

Hyphens can clutter content and make it more difficult to read.

Only use a hyphen if a word or sentence is confusing without it.

Ask yourself if there's a chance someone could misread what you've written and then add a hyphen if needed. Compare "recover" and "re-cover" (meaning "put on a new cover").

You can often write something simply and clearly without a hyphen. For example, "has no sugar" instead of "sugar-free".

We use a hyphen for:

  • non-alcoholic
  • non-drowsy
  • self-care, self-help, self-isolate, self-test

We do not use a hyphen for:

  • anticoagulant
  • beta blockers
  • breastfeeding

Whether or not we use a hyphen depends on the context.

Use "long term" in phrases like "in the long term". But use a hyphen for "long-term" as an adjective, for example in "long-term care". Do the same with "short term" and "short-term".

Use "follow up" as a verb, but "follow-up" with a hyphen in "follow-up appointment".

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:

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 – do not swallow it.
  3. Repeat as often as you like.

Quotation marks

Do not:

  • overdo quotation marks – they can be distracting and are often unnecessary
  • use them to tell users which element (for example, a text input or button) to select – instead use bold in technical instructions

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.

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

Would you like to contribute to this guidance?

Please let us know how this has worked for you and, in particular, if you have research findings to share. This will help us improve it for everyone.

Before you start, you will need a GitHub account. It's an open forum where we collect feedback.

If you have any questions, you can message us on Slack. You will need a Slack account if you do not have one. Or you can contact us by email.

Updated: February 2022