Web Style Guide
Writing for the Web follows the Department's style, which is based on the AP Stylebook. Please consult this resource if you have questions.
- Abbreviations for states
- Acting (as a job title)
- Agency names and use of the word "the"
- Avian Flu-Swine Flu-Pandemic Flu (Or Influenza)
- Commissioned Corps
Points to Remember(a list of common stylistic errors)
- Academic Degrees and Professional Affiliations
- Administration (as in a presidential administration)
- Chairman, chairwoman
- Decimal Point
- Past Tense (in quotes)
- Self-/sub- (prefixes)
- Senior citizen/elderly
- States (state of…) (see also "Abbreviations for States")
- Teen, teenager (n.) teenage (adj.)
- That, which
- Time zones
- Telephone numbers
- ZIP code
HHS Exceptions from AP style
Abbreviations for States – Use Postal Service style, rather than AP style. Example: MS, MO, MN and MI, not Miss., Mo., Minn. and Mich.
Academic Degrees –It is AP style to use "Dr." before a name when the person holds a medical degree. HHS style will be John Jones, M.D., although Dr. Jones would be an acceptable second reference. HHS has many people whose doctorates are important in their jobs but which are in other areas than medicine, such as a Ph.D. We use these identifiers when relevant, but we do not refer to people with Ph.D. s as "Dr.," though on first reference "Sam Smith, Ph.D." is acceptable. Second reference could be to Dr. Jones or simply to Jones, but it should be consistent. See also "Academic Degrees and Professional Affiliations."
Acting (as a job title) –The AP does not capitalize "acting" as 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.
Acting should be capitalized as part of a formal title if a person is officially named to that job. Example: Acting FDA Commissioner John Jones. Similarly, if a person is not officially named as acting holder of a position, avoid even lower case use.
If the title follows the name, however, use lower case, as proper grammar. Example: John Jones, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
Agency Names and Use of the Word "The" –Use "the" before the agency name (the Office of the Inspector General) if the agency commonly is known by that usage.
As for the abbreviations, it would be up to the agency to decide if the public would refer to the agency commonly by its initials and know what that means, and the name is being used as a noun (the FDA announced.) AP copy commonly uses "the" before FDA. That's not the case for agencies less well-known, such as AHRQ.
AIDS –HHS uses HIV/AIDS, as more exact than simply AIDS, when we mean the infectious disease in general. We use HIV when talking about the virus or the pre-AIDS stage. We would not use human immunodeficiency virus alone because more people would recognize it by its acronym. If the disease has advanced to the level at which it is clinically defined as AIDS, we would say that. See AIDS.gov for examples of how the terms are used at HHS.
Avian Flu-Swine Flu-Pandemic Flu (Or Influenza) – Because the AP Stylebook does not cover this, here is the correct use of terms from www.flu.gov
- Seasonal (or common) flu is a respiratory illness that can be transmitted person to person. Most people have some immunity, and a vaccine is available.
- Avian (or bird) flu is caused by influenza viruses that occur naturally among wild birds. The H5N1 variant is deadly to domestic fowl and can be transmitted from birds to humans. There is no human immunity and no vaccine is available.
- Swine Flu is caused by influenza viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia, plus avian and human genes. The H1N1 flu virus caused the 2009-2010 Pandemic. HHS uses the term only as a parenthetical to "H1N1" flu, or to identify it as "commonly known as ‘swine flu'."
- Pandemic flu is virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness. Because there is little natural immunity, the disease can spread easily from person to person.
Comma –Unlike AP, we use the serial comma. This means we place a comma before "and" in a series: "To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God," not "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God." As the example shows, omitting the serial comma can create ambiguity. This lack of clarity also has created legal problems for the government, which is why federal agencies are asked strongly to use the comma. In addition, the serial comma improves scannability, making clear to users how many items are in a series.
Commissioned Corps –We can refer in upper case to the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, or say a person is an officer in the Commissioned Corps (provided we already identified the Commissioned Corps as part of the U.S. Public Health Service).
Datelines –In general, we don't need them in news releases because the letterhead or Web page provides location identification. When we use datelines, they should reflect where the news comes from. If the news is at an event in Chicago and the agency is in Washington, the dateline city is Chicago. If the announcement comes from Washington about an event to take place in Chicago, the dateline city is Washington. When the release is a roundup – for instance, a multicenter study in which the news comes from several areas and the writer or the agency was not in any of those places – we would not use a dateline. This would be similar to AP style for roundups.
Headlines (news releases, fact sheets, and reports) – All words in headlines are in bold, upper and lower, Times New Roman. Italics are not used for headlines or subheads. Headings must use H1 and subheads H2 styles.
HHS – The official acronym, replacing DHHS.
Percent – For Web content, use the % sign.
SARS – Acceptable in all references for severe acute respiratory syndrome, but it should be spelled out somewhere in the text.
Points to Remember
Academic Degrees and Professional Affiliations
We don't have to use every degree and professional association in referring to people. When a person has multiple degrees, use the degree most appropriate to the news in the release. For instance, a researcher with a Ph.D. in epidemiology and an MBA would take only the Ph.D. in a release related to epidemiology, but the Ph.D. and the MBA in a release about management of a program related to his field of study. "Dr. Jones" is acceptable on second reference for both medical degrees and non-medical doctor.
Do not mention professional associations by abbreviation (e.g., FACS, FAAP) after a person's name. If the news is about the professional association, write out the name of the association, and write out the affiliation of the person in the release (e.g., Dr. Jones, a member of the American College of Surgeons).
We should follow AP style and use as few as possible. It would be better to write out names each time they occur, or to use a short reference, as reporters do, than to force the reader to glance back up the copy to relearn an acronym. We commonly use acronyms for agency names. If it is a well-known agency such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health, we don't need a (CDC) or an (NIH) immediately after the first reference. We can refer simply to the CDC and the NIH on second reference. If it is a less-familiar agency, we can refer in a general way on second reference without using an acronym. An example: After referring to the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Review, subsequent references would refer to CDER or the Center. If we must use CDER, such as in a release that refers to more than one FDA center, we would put the acronym directly after the first reference to the agency name.
Administration (as in a presidential administration)
Lower case, per AP style
Lower case, except in a proper name
AP uses data as singular if we refer to a body of data, such as an entire report, and use data as plural if we refer to more than one data point. So: The data is clear. But some data are not clear.
Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, is the primary AP reference for issues not covered by the stylebook. It would be good for agencies to have a copy, but it's not a requirement. The HHS-preferred medical dictionary is available at MedlinePlus.
Unless there is a clearly identifiable need, we do not carry numbers beyond the second decimal point.
It is lower case as a general term (e.g., the federal government. It is upper case as part of a name (e.g., the Federal Reserve).
Not healthcare, except on an agency or organization title.
Use figures for all numbers above nine. Spell out all numbers under 10. Use figures for all ages, sums of money, time of day.
Past Tense (in quotes)
We typically would use the past tense in quotes: Smith said, instead of Smith says.
Do not use "irregardless."
Names of seasons are lower case.
Capitalize before a name only if it is an official corporate or organizational title, as it is at HHS. Do not abbreviate.
Use these terms carefully and sparingly. 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.
But not spokesperson. Use "representative" if you do not know the sex of the individual.
States (state of…) (see also "Abbreviations for States")
Lowercase in all state of constructions: the state of Maine, the states of Maine and Vermont. Four states—Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia—are legally commonwealths rather than states. The distinction is necessary only in formal uses: The commonwealth of Kentucky filed a suit. For simple geographic reference: Tobacco is grown in the state of Kentucky. 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.
Note especially the ending -sede, not -cede like precede. The word derives from the Latin supersedere, meaning "to sit above," and is related to words such as sedentary and sedan.
Teen, teenager (n.) teenage (adj.)
No hyphen is AP style. Do not use teen-aged.
Use that and which in referring to inanimate objects and to animals without a name. Use that for essential clauses, important to the meaning of a sentence, and without commas: I remember the day that we met. Use which for nonessential clauses, where the pronoun is less necessary, and use commas: The team, which finished last a year ago, is in first place.
Tip: If you can drop the clause and not lose the meaning of the sentence, use which; otherwise, use that. A which clause is surrounded by commas; no commas are used with that clauses.) For information about the use of "that" and "which" in legal documents, visit the Kent Law site, which discusses the topic.
Capitalize the full name of the time in force within a particular zone: Eastern Standard Time, Eastern Daylight Time, Central Standard Time, etc.
Lowercase all but the region in short forms: the Eastern time zone, Eastern time, Mountain time, etc.
The abbreviations EST, CDT, etc., are acceptable on first reference for zones used within the continental United States, Canada, and Mexico only if the abbreviation is linked with a clock reading: noon EST, 9 a.m. PST. (Do not set off the abbreviations with commas.)
Spell out all references to time zones not used within the contiguous United States: When it is noon EDT, it is 1 p.m. Atlantic Standard Time and 8 a.m. Alaska Standard Time. One exception to the spelled-out form: Greenwich Mean Time may be abbreviated as GMT on second reference if used with a clock reading.
Use figures. The form: 212-621-1500. For international numbers use 011 (from the United States), the country code, the city code and the telephone number: 011-44-20-7535-1515. Use hyphens, not periods. The form for toll-free numbers: 800-111-1000. Do not use a 1 to indicate long distance. If extension numbers are needed, use a comma to separate the main number from the extension: 212-621-1500, ext.
In general, confine capitalization to formal titles used directly before an individual's name. The basic guidelines:
- Capitalize formal titles when they are used immediately before one or more names: Pope Paul, President Washington, Vice Presidents John Jones and William Smith. A formal title generally is one that denotes a scope of authority, professional activity, or academic activity: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Dr. Marcus Welby, Pvt. Gomer Pyle.
- If there is doubt about the status of a title and the practice of the organization cannot be determined, use a construction that sets off the name or the title with commas.
- Concerning abbreviated titles: The following formal titles are capitalized and abbreviated as shown when used before a name outside quotations: Dr., Gov., Lt. Gov., Rep., Sen., and certain military ranks. All other formal titles are spelled out in all uses.
- Concerning long titles: Separate a long title from a name by a construction that requires a comma: Charles Robinson, the undersecretary for economic affairs, spoke. Or: The undersecretary for economic affairs, Charles Robinson, spoke.
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: AstroTurf, for a type of artificial grass, for example.
In general, use a generic equivalent unless the trademark name is essential to the story. When a trademark is used, capitalize it.
Short form of World Wide Web, it is a service, or set of standards, that enables the publishing of multimedia documents on the Internet. The Web is not the same as the Internet, but is a subset; other applications, such as email, exist on the Internet. It is generally credited as the concept of researcher Tim Berners-Lee who developed the first practical system in 1989. Also, website (an exception to Webster's first listing), and webpage.
Use figures, without commas: 1975. Use commas only with a month and day: Dec. 18, 1994, was a special day. Use an s without an apostrophe to indicate spans of decades or centuries: the 1890s, the 1800s. To abbreviate a decade, ‘70s is acceptable. Years are the lone exception to the general rule in numerals that a figure is not used to start a sentence: 1976 was a very good year.
Use all-caps ZIP for Zoning Improvement Plan, but always lowercase the word "code." Run the five digits together without a comma, and do not put a comma between the state name and the ZIP code: New York, NY 10020. When possible (and available), use the extended ZIP code format: 10020-0001
Content last reviewed on August 19, 2015