Government websites often talk at readers rather than to them. Content is written in confusing “governmentese,” leaving users frustrated by information that is neither actionable nor understandable.
This guide will help you remove that frustration for your website visitors. If you’re wondering whether to capitalize the word “federal,” or if you don’t know how to create a friendly, informational tone, this guide is for you.
Abbreviations and Acronyms
Abbreviations are any shortened word or phrase. They are used to keep writing succinct and should remain consistent throughout a piece of writing. For example, you can write "St." instead of "Street."
Acronyms are a type of abbreviation. They use parts of the initial word or phrase (usually letters) to form an abbreviation. For example, "DIY" is an acronym for “do it yourself,” and "ASAP” is an acronym for “as soon as possible.”
However, acronyms often confuse readers. You should avoid them if possible.
If an acronym is necessary, spell out the full word or phrase on first reference, then write the acronym in parentheses. For example, to introduce the acronym “GSA,” write, “The General Services Administration (GSA).”
However, some acronyms (e.g, NASA and FBI) are more recognizable than their full spellings. In such instances, using just the acronym is acceptable. You may also refer an organization on second reference with a shortened name in place of an acronym. For example, instead of using “DOL” to abbreviate “Department of Labor,” write "Labor.”
American Indian and Alaska Native
Most tribal nations prefer to use "American Indian and Alaska Native." This term is synonymous with the term “Native American.” On first reference, you should use "American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN)." For subsequent references, you should use "AI/AN."
"Alaskan Native" is an incorrect use of the term “Alaska Native.”
You shouldn't capitialize "tribe" unless you are referring to a specific tribe in your writing.
- "The Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma” versus “He works with the tribe.”
You shouldn't capitialize "tribal" unless you are referring to a specific program or organization.
- "The Tribal Community Planning Board” versus “She works with a tribal business.”
The term "indigenous" is a common synonym for the term “American Indian and Alaska Native” and “Native American.” But “indigenous” doesn't need to be capitalized unless it's used in context as a proper noun.
- Healing Our Spirit Worldwide Indigenous Peoples Conference
- Indigenous HIV/AIDS Research Training Program
You should capitalize "Native" when using it as a synonym for “American Indian and Alaska Native.”
- We have been serving the needs of Native communities for more than 20 years.
- The powwow activities included Native games and a basketball tournament.
You should write the term in lowercase when using it as an adjective.
The blanket depicts vegetation that is native to the region.
You must always capitalize this term and avoid using it without a modifier (e.g., "Indian Country," "American Indian").
Use of this term alone can be considered derogatory if used to refer to American Indians and Alaska Natives, and it creates confusion between Native Americans people from India.
"First Nation" is the preferred term for tribes in Canada.
Bulleted lists allow readers to quickly scan your web page for information. They're easier to read than long blocks of text, and they can be used to highlight important content.
Suggestions for Bulleted Lists:
- Capitalize the first word of each bullet
- Begin each bullet with a verb or an action word to efficiently convey your message
- If your bullet contains a complete sentence, you should end it with a period. Otherwise, you should avoid using periods.
- Follow the same sentence structure for each bullet for consistency (e.g., use all complete sentences or all incomplete sentences)
- Use subbullets to express an idea related to the main bullet to keep themes organized in the reader's mind
Numbers and Numerals
- Spell out numbers one through nine, and use numerals for numbers 10 and greater
- Spell out ordinal numbers first to ninth, and use numerals for ordinal numbers 10th or greater
- Occasionally government writing contains very large numbers (i.e., millions, billions, trillions). In these cases, you should write such numbers with a numeral and a word (e.g., 1.6 million people).
- Spell out numbers when they start a sentence
- Spell out all fractions and use hyphens with them (e.g., "One-third of the cake was eaten.")
- Use a comma for numbers over 999
- Use a "0" when there is no digit before a decimal point
- Try to maintain as much accuracy as possible up to two decimal places
- Use "to" instead of a "dash" for a range: "500 to 900" instead of "500-900" except in tables
- Use roman numerals to describe wars and in reference to people (e.g., "World War II," "Pope John Paul II," "Elizabeth II.")
If your writing contains amounts of money in cents, use numerals followed by words: "5 cents."
If your writing contains amounts of money greater than $1 million, use the dollar sign, followed by numerals, followed by words: "$2.7 million."
If your writing contains amounts of money less than $1 million, use the dollar sign followed by numerals: "$17."
If your title or subheading contains numbers, you can use numerals: “10 business leaders you should know now" or "6 ways to incorporate plain-language strategies.”
You can use the percent sign (%) sign when it's paired with a numerals, which can improve the readability and scannability.
This is particularly true in the following formats:
- Technical or scientific writing (e.g., “60% of participants reported experiencing negative side effects.”)
- Headings and subheadings (e.g., “Candidate Woof takes 7% lead in the election for best dog.”)
- Captions and infographics
You should use words instead of figures and numbers when not using numerals.
Capitalization usage varies according to the context.
The most important rule is to remain consistent with which words you capitalize to avoid confusing the reader.
You should use title case carefully because it's attributed to formal writing. When used appropriately, it can clarify that you’re speaking about a specific, official thing (such as a form, office, or person).
But overusing it can confuse readers by implying formality or officiality in inappropriate contexts. For example, you should capitalize the phrase “Form 1040, U.S. Individual Income Tax Return” because it is an official title of a form. You shouldn't capitalize “income taxes” or “income tax forms,” because these phrases could refer to a number of forms, both unofficial and official.
- Always capitialize proper nous (e.g., names of individuals, places, and agencies)
- Don’t capitalize personal titles unless they precede a name (e.g., “the director got approval” versus “Director Lopez got approval.”)
- Headlines, page titles, subheads and similar content should follow title case and should not include a trailing colon:
- “Making Sense of Washington’s Tech Landscape”
- “Privileges and Responsibilities”
Dates, Addresses, Phone Numbers, and Email
- Always capitialize months
- Spell out months in full, unless used with a particular date (for a specific date, abbreviate only the following months: "Jan.," "Feb.," "Aug.," "Sept.," "Oct.," "Nov.," and "Dec.")
- Use commas with the date, month, and year
- Don’t use "st," "nd," "rd," or "th" with dates
- Use "to" in address ranges
- Format street addresses according to three lines:
- The first line contains the street address, using numbers and only abbreviating "St.," "Blvd.," and "Ave."
- The second line is used for floors and suites, which should be spelled out and capitalized.
- The third line should contain the city, state, and ZIP code. You can use the two-letter abbreviation for states with no punctuation. It's acceptable to use a five-digit ZIP code instead of a 9-digit ZIP code.
- Don't add a "1" before the area code, unless it's necessary for an international audience
- Use parentheses around the area code
- Don't use letters in phone numbers since it prevents mobile users from clicking on the number to call
- If you have html knowledge, you can make a phone number an active link by putting "tel:" before it.
- Spell out as one word
- Write email addresses in full in lowercase
- If you have html knowledge, you can make an email address an active link by putting "mailto:" before it.
You should always aim to use links in a way that will be helpful for a user.
Suggestions For a Better User Experience
- Provide enough context for a link so that a user can make sense of it (e.g., use "Apply for a Grant" instead "click here")
- Avoid long, uncategorized link lists that make it difficult for a user to fnd what they're looking for
- Don't confuse a user by using the same text link in multiple places on the same web page
- Avoid using short links that make it harder for a user to click
Tables should be used for presenting data and can replace bulleted lists in certain situations.
- Tables should have a bolded and capitalized header row
- Totals or differences between amounts should be listed at the end of columns and rows
- There should be more rows than columns
- Important information should be listed first
- Months can be truncated, dashes can shorten number spans, and large numbers can be rounded to keep text concise
- The minimum suggested table size is two columns and three rows, but you should reconsider the need for using a small table.
Tables are no longer intended to be used to alter a web page's layout.
Grammar and Punctuation
Sentences should always be separated by a single space — never two spaces.
A dash signals a pause or an independent statement. You should add a space on either side of a dash and don’t capitalize the first word following a dash.
We use the serial comma (sometimes called the Oxford comma). In a list of three or more, you should include a comma before the conjunction.
You should avoid using the "/" symbol and use words or commas instead.
You should use double quotes for direct quotations in the body of a text.
We suggest that you avoid semicolons. If a long sentence uses semicolons, you should break it up into multiple sentences.
You can italicize in certain situations to differentiate or give greater prominence to words and phrases.
We suggest that you use italics for titles of books, scholarly journals, periodicals, films, videos, or television shows.
You shouldn't use italics for words or italicize for emphasis.
You shouldn't use underlines because they're used for links.
Ampersands or Plus Signs
You should use "and" instead of an ampersand or plus sign unless they’re part of an official title or company name. For example, you could still write "D.C. Community Planning Conference + Training Day."
A compound word is a union of two or more words that are joined either with or without a hyphen.
You should avoid using a hyphen if the compound word is clearly understood on its own:
- “fellow citizen”
- “real estate”
But you can use a hyphen if the compound word is not clearly understood on its own:
Words to Avoid and Alternatives
agenda (unless you’re talking about a meeting)
combating (use working against or fighting)
commit or pledge (we need to be more specific — we’re either doing something or we’re not)
countering (use answering or responding)
deliver (pizzas, mail, and services are delivered — not abstract concepts like improvements or priorities)
deploy (unless you’re talking about the military or software)
dialogue (we speak to people)
disincentivize or incentivize
execute (use run or do)
facilitate (instead, say something specific about how you are helping)
foster (unless it’s children)
impact or impactful
initiate (use start)
innovative (use words that describe the positive outcome of the innovation)
in order to (use to)
key (unless it unlocks something, use important or omit)
land (as a verb only use if you’re talking about aircraft)
leverage (unless you use it in the financial sense)
liaise (use collaborate, work with, or partner with)
modify (use change instead)
slimming down (processes don’t diet)
tackling (unless you’re referring to football or another contact sport)
thought leader (refer to a person’s accomplishments)
touchpoint (mention specific system components)
transforming (what are you actually doing to change it?)
Content on government sites often makes a direct appeal to the public to get involved or take action.
- Address the reader as "you" whenever possible (e.g., "You can email us or call our office.")
As a government organization, we need to sound somewhat official. But we also recognize that official doesn’t need to translate to stuffy, archaic or aloof.
For this reason, you can use contractions when writing for our sites.
Avoid using "citizen" as a generic term for people who live in the United States. Many government 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. Feel free to choose from any of these words:
- The public
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.”
You can use "citizens" for information related to U.S. citizenship, for example, when describing who is eligible to vote in federal elections.
You need to be careful with "Americans" or "the American public." These terms are ambiguous and are often used as synonyms for citizens. In most cases, the public is equally clear and more inclusive. That said, referring to "Americans" or the "American people" can be useful if you want to inspire readers or take a more patriotic tone.
You should avoid using the terms "illegals" or "illegal aliens" and instead use "undocumented immigrants."
Following AP style,we always use figures for ages. If the age is used as an adjective or as a substitute for a noun, then it should be hyphenated. You shouldn't use apostrophes when describing an age range.
- A 20-year-old student.
- The student is 17 years old.
- The girl, 5, has a brother, 12.
- The contest is for 16-year-olds. She is in her 30s.
You can make reference to someone’s age when it is relevant to the context, but you should avoid using labels if possible.
We prefer using the terms "older adult," "older person," or "senior" over "senior citizen" or "elderly" only when appropriate.
It generally acceptable to describe a male or female younger than 18 as a "boy" or a "girl."
You should use full names on first reference. On second reference, we follow AP style and use the person's last name in most cases.
If there’s a chance of confusion on second reference when using only first or last names, you can use full names.
You should use text is gender neutral wherever possible, and avoid words and phrases that indicate gender bias (e.g., lengthy and irrelevant descriptions of a person's appearance). You can use "they," "them" and "their" when appropriate.
Whenever possible, you should use gender neutral titles. For example, you should write “firefighter” instead of “fireman,” and “chairperson” instead of “chairman.”
Trademarks and Brands
You should avoid using a trademark unless you’re referring to a specific product.
This can be tricky when a trademarked name, like Kleenex, has become synonymous with an entire family of products. Try to use a generic word — like tissue — instead of a brand name.
Common trademarked words (with alternative terms)
- Band-Aid (adhesive bandage, bandage)
- Bubble Wrap (packaging bubbles)
- Chapstick (lip balm)
- Crayola (crayons)
- Dumpster (waste container, trash container)
- Hi-Liter (highlighting marker)
- Kleenex (tissue)
- Plexiglas (plastic glass)
- Post-it note (adhesive note)
- Q-Tips (cotton swabs)
- Scotch tape (transparent tape)
- Styrofoam (plastic foam)
- Taser (stun gun)
- Xerox (photocopy, copy)
Careful use of trademarked names and brands is important because the government shouldn’t endorse specific brands or products. When writing about corporate brands or products to illustrate a point, mention a range of related companies instead of a single provider.
Avoid linking to products or services, because people can see it as an endorsement. The same rule applies to the brands and products of individuals, such as personal websites or websites where you can buy their book.
However, you can link to useful resources like slide decks or how-to guides from private individuals or companies. If you mention a trademark, capitalize and punctuate it in the trademark holder’s preferred style.