Style and Mechanics

Consistent style is crucial to a good experience for the reader. This section covers grammar, spelling, and mechanics.

Style Elements

Capitalization

Capitalization should be used in appropriate stylistic and grammatical contexts – not for emphasis (i.e., no SHOUTY CAPS)

Sentence Case

How you typically capitalize a standard sentence — the first word is capitalized.

This is an example of sentence case

Sentence case does not refer to whether or not the statement uses punctuation. For example, when making an ordered or unordered list, each item should be sentence case, but will not use punctuation.

Title Case

How titles often appear — the first letter of each primary word is capitalized (not articles, conjunctions, or prepositions). 

This is an Example of Title Case

Use title case for all headings.

Spacing

Sentences should always be separated by a single space. Never two spaces. Period.

Punctuation

Ampersands

Fun fact: An ampersand is technically not punctuation – it is a logogram Visit disclaimer page , a symbol meant to represent an entire word .

See abbreviations for more information.

Colons vs. Dashes

Use a colon to separate a term from the additional information about the term that follows. Colons use less space and can be used more consistently than dashes.

Community programs: ACF covers three or more…

Commas

Unlike AP style, in any list of three or more items, always use a comma before the "and." This is known as a serial or oxford comma.

Omitting the serial comma can create ambiguity, lack of clarity, and legal problems for the government, which is why federal agencies are strongly advised to use the comma. In addition, the serial comma improves scanability, making clear to users how many items are in a series.

Correct: The zombies, Washington, and Lincoln.

Incorrect: The zombies, Washington and Lincoln.

Dashes

En dashes (–): Use en dashes (or “short dashes”) for numerical ranges, like dates, ages, and pages.

Eligibility information is available on pages 1–4.

Enrollment occurs from Jan. 1–Jan. 31.

Em dashes ( — ): Use em dashes (or “long dashes”) to represent a sudden change in thought or tone or to replace colons and sets of parentheses. Following AP style, put spaces around the dash.

Eligibility information — available in this guide — can change each year.

Notes about dashes: The little horizontal line on your keyboard is a hyphen, not a dash. To insert the correct dash, use the symbol menu, or set a custom shortcut in Word Visit disclaimer page .

Hyphens

Hyphens (-): Hyphens should be used only to hyphenate words. This happens when you have compound adjectives — two or more words describing a noun.

State-of-the-art stereo

Off-campus apartment

Hyphenate the prefixes self- and sub-: Unlike AP style, always hyphenate words using the prefix self-and sub-.

Complete the self-evaluation

There are two program sub-categories.

Slashes

Avoid using the slash / symbol. Replace it with words or commas as appropriate.

Abbreviations

Abbreviating “and”

Do not abbreviate “and” with an ampersand (&) or plus sign (+) unless it is part of an official title or company name.

D.C. Tech Lady Hackathon + Training Day, Procter & Gamble

NOTE: The formal title of our organization is the Administration for Children and Families. The ampersand is only used in logo treatments, not in text.

State Abbreviations

Use Postal Service style for all materials except for press releases. Press releases follow AP style.

Postal Service: MS, MO, MN, MI

AP Style: Miss., Mo., Minn., Mich.

Academic Titles 

See titles.

Acronyms

Acronyms can be extremely confusing to the reader, so the goal should be to use as few acronyms as possible.

Alternatives to acronyms

Ideally, use a short reference as reporters do.

The Committee for Equal Treatment had a meeting. The committee discussed….

The FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Review produced a study. The Center’s study produced….

Note: Capitalization can be tricky here. Capitalization can be dropped if it’s a common word being used for shorthand (committee, agency, etc.), or left in if you want to emphasize that it replaces a formal title. Consistency is the most important thing.

When using acronyms

When an acronym is necessary, such as for agency names, it should be placed in parentheses after the first mention.

The Administration for Children and Families (ACF)….

The FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Review (CDER) has been working to publish studies. CDER…

HHS: The official acronym for the Department of Health and Human Services is HHS, not DHHS.

The Administration for Children and Families is part of HHS.

Titles

Formal Titles

A formal title generally is one that conveys the scope of authority, professional activity, or academic activity.

Capitalize formal titles when they are used immediately before one or more names.

Senator Jane Smith

President Smith

If the title appears as a description of a name, it should not be capitalized. (Often these titles will be offset by commas.)

Jane Smith, the senator from Washington…

The president of the company, Jane Smith, gave a speech…

Military Titles

Military titles should be used and abbreviated in the same way as other titles. Do not capitalize all letters of the title.

Correct: Commander, Cmdr. 

Incorrect: CDR

Abbreviated Titles

Most titles should be spelled out. There are a few exceptions, which can be used before the mention of a name.

  • Dr.
  • Gov.
  • Lt. Gov.
  • Rep.
  • Sen.
  • Certain military ranks (Gen., Capt. Lt., etc.)

Dr. Smith is in the office.

Lt. Gov. Smith signed the law.

Academic titles: It’s better to spell out any academic achievements.

            Jane Smith, who has a doctorate in Psychology…

Academic titles should not be abbreviated (B.A., M.B,A, Ph.D., etc.), unless strictly necessary to distinguish between a long list of people, and should always appear after a full name (not just a last name).

Jane Smith, Ph.D, and Sarah Smith, B.A., published a study.

They also should not be combined with other titles that imply the same achievement – don’t use Dr. and Ph.D. for the same person.

Academic Degrees and Professional Affiliations

Use academic titles and professional associations only when relevant to the context of what is being written.

Example: A researcher has a Ph.D. in epidemiology and an MBA. In a press release about epidemiology, only the Ph.D. would be mentioned.

Do not mention professional associations by abbreviation (FACS, FAAP) after a person's name. Indicate that their role and write out the name of the association, if needed.

Dr. Jones, a member of the American College of Surgeons.

Punctuation: AP style uses apostrophes with the bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. There is no possessive for associate degree.

There is also no apostrophe when using a formal degree name — Bachelor of Arts, Master of Science.

For abbreviated academic titles, see abbreviations.

Numbers and Dates

Numbers

Spell out all numbers nine and under (one, two, three…).

Use figures for all numbers 10 and above (10, 20, 3,213).

Use figures for all ages, sums of money, or time of day.

Exceptions:

  • The number is the first word of the sentence
  • The number is part of a compound modifier (twelve-time winner)
  • The number is used in a heading

Dates

Spell out the names of all months when using alone or with a year alone. When a phrase lists only a month and year, do not separate the year with commas.

October

October 2014

Months should be abbreviated when used with a specific date.

The fiscal year ends Sept. 30, 2014.

Feb. 12 is Lincoln’s birthday.

AP style only abbreviates months with more than five letters (Jan., Feb., March, April, May, June, July, Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov., Dec.)

Exception: Using periods at the end of a month's abbreviation isn’t necessary when presenting months in a table or graph.

Do not use ordinals (th, st) with dates.

Percentages

Use the percent sign instead of writing out the full word “percent.”

Enrollment is up 35%

Decimal Points

In text, don’t carry numbers beyond the second decimal point unless there is a clearly identifiable need.

Enrollment is up 3.25%

Telephone Numbers

Use hyphens (not periods) in formatting phone numbers. Do not set apart area codes with parentheses.

Regular: 212-555-1000

Toll-Free: 800-111-1000

For extensions: 212-621-1500, ext. 200

For international numbers, use 011 (from the United States), the country code, the city code and the telephone number.

International numbers: 011-44-20-7535-1515

Years

Use commas only with a month and day.

1975

Dec. 18, 1994, was a special day.

Use an “s” without an apostrophe to indicate spans of decades or centuries. Put an apostrophe before the number when indicating a decade in the 20th century.

1890s, 1800s

‘70s

Years are the exception to the general rule that a figure is not used to start a sentence. 

1976 was a very good year.

ZIP codes

Use all-caps ZIP for Zoning Improvement Plan, but always lowercase the word "code."

ZIP

ZIP code

Do not put a comma between the state name and the ZIP code. When possible (and available), use the extended ZIP code format with the final four digits.

Washington, DC 20201-0001

Times

Time of day: Abbreviate “ante meridiem” (before noon) and “post meridiem” (after noon) with lowercase letters and periods (a.m. and p.m.).

We have breakfast planned for Monday at 10 a.m.

Avoid redundancy when writing about the time of day i.e. “10 a.m. this morning.”

Incorrect: We have breakfast planned for 10 a.m. Monday morning.

Correct: We have breakfast planned for 10 a.m. Monday.

Time zones: In general time zones should be capitalized when using the full title.

Eastern Daylight Time, Greenwich Mean Time

When referencing the time zone in a sentence and not using the formal title, only the direction needs to be capitalized:

Eastern time

the Eastern time zone

Common abbreviations for time zones within the continental United States, Canada, and Mexico (EST, CDT, etc.) are ok when used with a clock reading.

9 a.m. PST

Spell out all references to time zones not used within the United States. If using Greenwich Mean Time, GMT can be used on the second reference.

When it is noon EDT, it is 1 p.m. Atlantic Standard Time and 4 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time. At noon GMT...

Noon, midnight: noon and midnight should be used, but are not capitalized (unless they are at the beginning of the sentence.

Money

Use the “$” symbol. Err towards using round dollar amounts, and avoid cents in text. For easy reading, separate major units with commas.

The monthly income limit is $4,000.

When dealing with millions, spell out the unit instead of abbreviating to M:

Correct: $1.5 million

Incorrect: $1.5M

Inclusive Language and Conscious Style

We want our content to be as inclusive as possible. Inspired by 18F’s conscious style, here are a few areas where we can work to be more inclusive.

The Conscious Style Guide Visit disclaimer page is an interesting resource, covering terminology for various communities with links to style guides and key articles debating usage.

The American Psychological Association also offers a guide for reducing bias Visit disclaimer page .

Age

We prefer “older person” or “senior” to “elderly.”

Do not refer to a person as elderly unless it is clearly relevant to the article.

It is appropriate in generic phrases that do not refer to specific individuals: concern for the elderly, a home for the elderly, etc.

If the intent is to show that an individual's faculties have deteriorated, cite a graphic example and give attribution for it.

Gender

Make sure text is gender neutral wherever possible. But also try and avoid using he/she — the slash isn't plain language and and repetition tends to be awkward. Try referring to the role (the employee, the grantee, the student) or “you.”

It is also becoming more common to use “they” to indicate a singular gender-neutral individual.

Avoid the use of words that imply a male bias, even if their common use is inclusive (man, mankind, manpower…)

Don’t use women or older relatives as substitute for novice or beginner. For example, don’t say something is so simple your mother can use it Visit disclaimer page .

Nationality and Citizenship

Avoid using “citizen” as a generic term for people who live in the United States. Many ACF programs serve non-citizens and individuals with a wide range of immigration and visa statuses.

How you refer to the public is largely dependent on context. “People,” “the public,” or “users” could all be appropriate.

“Citizens” should be used for information directly related to U.S. citizenship — like when describing who is eligible to vote in federal elections.

Be as specific as possible. Depending on the situation, you may want to say something like “People who need healthcare” or “People who need to access government services online.”

Be careful with “Americans” or “the American public.” These terms are ambiguous Visit disclaimer page and are often used as synonyms for “citizens.” In most cases, “the public” is equally clear and more inclusive.