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Formatting and punctuation

How we write abbreviations, acronyms, capitalisation and other content styles.

Abbreviations and acronyms

Spell out acronyms at first mention unless they are well known, eg UK, DVLA, US, EU, VAT, MP etc. This includes government departments or schemes, for example: HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

Do not use an acronym if you are not going to use it again later in the text. We now use TPR as our own acronym.

Do not use full stops in abbreviations, for example: HMRC, not H.M.R.C.

Bullet points

You can use bullet points to make text easier to read. We have three different bullet point styles.

Bullet points with a lead-in line

Make sure that:

  • the bullets make sense running on from the lead-in line
  • you use lower case at the start of the bullet
  • you do not use full stops within bullet points – where possible start another bullet point or use commas, dashes or semicolons to expand on an item
  • you do not put ‘or’, ‘and’, etc after the bullets
  • if you add links they appear within the text and not as the whole bullet
  • there is no full stop after the last bullet point

Bullet points as standalone sentences

  • If the bullets are standalone sentences start each bullet with an initial cap and end with a full stop.
  • Bullets are designed to be read quickly so keep them succinct.

Numbered bullet points

  1. Use steps to guide a user through a process.
  2. Use numbered steps, not bullets, for each line.
  3. You do not need a lead-in line.
  4. You can use links in steps.
  5. Each step ends in a full stop because each step should be a complete sentence.

Commas

Straightforward lists do not need a comma before the final ‘and’, eg ‘he ate ham, eggs and chips’.

However sometimes it can help the reader, eg ‘he ate cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea’. Sometimes it is essential to make the meaning clear. For example, compare the following two sentences:

  • I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling
  • I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling

Dates

See dates in the GOV.UK A to Z style guide.

Figures, charts and diagrams

Figures, charts and diagrams should be as clear as possible. Use concise and informative titles. Avoid 3-D charts as they are more difficult to read.

The look and feel of figures, charts and diagrams should be consistent throughout the content and follow TPR standards. See also using colour on graphs.

We will be adding more detailed guidance on charts and diagrams to this guide in due course. In the meantime the ONS has some useful guidance on how to use data visualisation.

Alternative text

People with visual impairments will miss out on critical information if images (such as infographics) are not described.

Alternative text (alt text) is descriptive text which conveys the meaning and context of a visual item in a digital setting, such as on an app or web page. When screen readers like JAWS and NVDA reach content with alt text, they will read it aloud, allowing people to better understand what is on the screen.

Well-written, descriptive alt text dramatically reduces ambiguity and improves the user's experience.

How to add alt text in Microsoft Word

Alt text appears when you hover your mouse over a picture or object. When creating alt text, you must add it to the description field:

Using a mouse

Select the figure, chart or diagram and right click, from the menu select Edit Alt Text on the Format Graphics Box that appears on screen, add your Alt Text to the Description field (see (5) in the image below).

Using the Graphics Tools Format toolbar

When you select the image, the toolbar will show an extra tab called Graphics Tools Format (1)

Word screen showing step by step method to add Alt text to an image 

Under this toolbar, select the Graphics Styles pane toggle (2) to open the Format Graphic pane (3). Select the Layout and Properties icon (4) and add the Alt text to the Description field (5).

The alt text should describe what the figure, chart or diagram is showing rather than repeating the title. For example: ‘This bar chart shows an upward trend in expenditure over a ten-year period from 2009 to 2019.

If the figure, chart or diagram is too complicated to describe concisely and its contents are already covered adequately in the text, you can set your alt text to say ‘a full description of this item follows in the main text’ but only do this if necessary.

Headings

Headings communicate the organisation of the content on the page. Web browsers, plug-ins and assistive technologies can use them to provide in-page navigation. Headings should be descriptive enough to be read out of context by screen reader users.

Heading 1 – Title of document.
There should only be one Heading 1 per document or screen as this will assure screen reader users that the main content starts from this point.

Heading 2 – Chapter headings.

Heading 3 – Section headings related to Heading 2.

Heading 4 – Sub-section headings related to Heading 3.

Heading 5 – Sub-sub-section headings related to Heading 4.

Headings should be chosen because of the relationship between the headings and not the size or positioning of the heading. With each heading, ask yourself if it's a sub-section of the previous heading. If not, it should be at the same level as (or higher than) the previous section.

Skipping heading ranks can be confusing and should be avoided where possible. Make sure that a Heading 2 is not followed directly by a Heading 4, for example.

It is ok to skip ranks when closing subsections. For instance, a Heading 2 beginning a new section can follow a Heading 4 as it closes the previous section.

Italics

We don't use italics in any communication materials intended for our external audiences.

Use ‘single quotation marks’ if referring to a document.

When writing elsewhere, always take care not to overuse italics. Too many on a page make the text difficult to read.

Numbers

  • Write one to nine in words and 10 onwards in numerals.
  • If a number starts a sentence, write it out in full (‘Thirty-four hula-hoops found in researcher’s filing cupboard’) except where it starts a title or subheading.

See also numbers in the GOV.UK A to Z style guide.

Tables

Tables can help you get a message across clearly and simply. Try and avoid complex tables, however, and consider splitting them into smaller ones.

Don't use tables in isolation - instead, summarise the information and include key findings or points in the text.

Avoid using tables within tables (nesting) and merged or split cells, as screen readers or keyboard shortcuts have difficulty navigating through them.

The look and feel of tables should be consistent throughout the content and follow TPR standards. See also using colour on tables.

Structure tables so they can be navigated easily

If you use a table, check the reading order to make sure that it makes sense and you can tab through left to right and top to bottom.

How to check the reading order

  1. Tab through the cells sequentially
  2. Check that the cursor moves through the table in a logical order

How to specify a header row in a table in Microsoft Word

Having clear column headings at the top of a table provides context and helps users navigate the contents.

  1. Select the top row(s) you wish to make header(s)
  2. On the Table tools tab, in the Layout group, select Repeat header rows