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Formatting and punctuation

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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.

Don't use Use
you’ll you'll

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.

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

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

Information:

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
  • straight away

Dashes

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

Use "to" for time and date ranges, not hyphens or dashes. Example: The surgery is open Monday to Friday, 2pm to 6pm.

Information:

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.

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.

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

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.

Numbers, times and dates and measurements

Numbers

We use numerals for all numbers (including 1 to 9) when they refer to amounts and time. We use "one" in running text and phrases.

Examples:

  • It can take 1 to 4 days for the medication to work.
  • One of your options is to see your GP.

Use your judgement when explaining medicines doses. Avoid having 2 sets of numerals next to each other.

We say: We do not say:
The usual dose is one or two 200mg tablets 3 times a day. The usual dose is 1 or 2 200mg tablets 3 times a day.

We use "to" instead of a dash for time, date and numerical ranges. "To" is quicker to read and it's easier for screen readers.

Examples:

  • The surgery is open Monday to Friday, 2pm to 6pm.
  • A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 means you're a healthy weight.

Times

TBD
We use: We do not use:
5.30pm 1730hrs
midnight 00:00, 12am
midday 12 noon, 12pm
6 hours 30 minutes 6.5hrs

Dates

We use this format: August 6 2018.

Months are capitalised.

When space is an issue - in tables, for example - we sometimes use truncated months: Jan, Feb.

Measurements

Dosage

We do not use a space between amount and measurement.

Example: The usual dose is 250mg to 500mg.

Temperature

We use Celsius for temperature.

Example: a temperature of 38C or higher.

Read more about temperature in the A to Z of NHS health writing.

Metric and imperial

We generally use metric. If it's helpful, add imperial in brackets.

Example: Babies who are having more than 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula a day do not need vitamin supplements.

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

Updated: February 2019