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Website style guide

Why have a style guide?

The council has a key role in communicating with and engaging people effectively. We need to ensure that what we write on our website/s is consistent, easy to understand and robust. A style guide sets out our writing style and use of grammar.

Communicating well with people is the responsibility of us all. Please make sure that you are familiar with this style guide if you are a website author or content creator. The style guide must also be read in conjunction with our accessibility guidelines and content design and structure pages in this playbook.

We know that every circumstance is different (be consistent, not uniform), so the style guide is not a rule book, but a set of principles that guide our work.

Our core aim is to write accessible content in Plain English, with a reading level of a 9 to 13 year old. We should avoid jargon and technical terms - if you must use them, explain them. The following style guide should help you achieve this.

Plain English

First let's say what plain English isn't and destroy some of the myths about it.

  • It's not 'cat sat on the mat’ writing. Almost anything - from leaflets and letters to legal documents - can be written in plain English without being patronising or oversimplified.
  • It doesn't mean weakening your message or changing its meaning.
  • It is not an amateur's method of communication.
  • And finally, it is not as easy as we would like to think.

The main advantages of plain English are:

  • it is faster to write;
  • it is faster to read; and
  • you get your message across more often, more easily and in a friendlier way.
  • translation into other languages is more accurate

Plain English main concepts

  • Write for your reader not yourself, meet your users needs. start with the same question every time: what does the user want to know
  • Prefer short words. Use words that are three syllables or less. We don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. For example, we use ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’, ‘help’ instead of ‘assist’, and ‘about’ instead of ‘approximately’.
  • Use everyday words whenever possible. Avoid jargon and legalistic words, and always explain any technical terms you have to use. We also lose trust from people if we write government ‘buzzwords’ and jargon.
  • Do not use clichés or idioms. These may not be understood or could be misinterpreted. For example, clear as crystal, at the end of the day, back to the drawing board.
  • Keep your sentence length down to an average of 15 to 20 words. Avoid making more than three statements within a single sentence.
  • Use active verbs as much as possible. This difference between active and passive verbs is not easy to understand - see 'Active voice' in house style below.
  • Structure your content - Use headings, subheadings, accordions, and lists to make reading easier. Include the important points, actions first (front load) tapering down to lesser detail. 
  • Be concise. Publish only what someone needs to know so they can complete their task. Nothing more. Having less information means the reader will read and understand more of what you want them to. be specific, informative, clear and to the point.
  • Imagine you are talking to your reader. We write conversationally – picture your audience and write as if you were talking to them one-to-one but with the authority of someone who can actively help.

Good online content is easy to read and understand. This helps people find what they need quickly and absorb it effortlessly. The main purpose of the council website is to provide information - there’s no excuse for putting unnecessarily complicated writing in the way of people’s understanding.

Experts often say that because they’re writing technical or complex content for a specialist audience, they do not need to use plain English. This is wrong. Research shows that higher literacy people prefer plain English because it allows them to understand the information as quickly as possible.

The readability of content is categorised by age, this is the level of education required for someone to understand the content, and not the age of the person the content has been written for. The average reading age of an adult in the UK is 9 years old. Whilst it may not always be possible to reach this reading age, you should aim for a reading age of 9-13 when writing content for websites or documents to be published online.

Crafting and proofing your content

Simplifying what you want to say can sometime be challenging!

We recommend using the Hemingway app. This analyses text for its level of complexity and then helpfully highlights what you could change or simplify. The score tells you how easy your content is to read (lower is better), and the colours show sentences which are difficult and words you should consider changing. 

Improve this medical centre information

Please copy the following two paragraphs into the Hemingway App and reduce the highlighted issues.

All patients are required to report to reception immediately upon their arrival so their attendance can be officially recorded on our systems. The onus is on the patient to make staff aware of their presence, especially when the surgery is operating to full capacity. Failure to do so may result in their appointment being missed or cancelled.

While you wait can you please record your weight, and blood pressure on the machines (instructions provided) in the pre-consultation room. Can you also check the contact information we have on your file is correct and update this using the kiosk. Please wait until your number is displayed on the wall and announced - before proceeding to the designated consultation room for your appointment (eg ticket 444 – please go to room 5).

There are many possible solutions – here is an example.

Please report to reception as soon as you arrive so we know you are here.

Then go to the pre-consultation room, use the kiosk to check and update your:

  • contact details
  • current weight
  • blood pressure

Wait for your ticket number to come up.

Microsoft editor - spelling and grammar checker (Chrome Extension) - Have this running while you are in the Contensis CMS for contextual spell check and basic grammar checks.

Proofing

  • On the first read through, check the content is correct.
  • On the second read through, check the grammar and structure.
  • Test out what you have written, especially with someone who knows nothing about the subject matter. Reading it aloud helps, as this picks up things you’ve missed, and whether the punctuation is right.
  • Ask a colleague to proof-read it.
  • Always re-read what you have written, even after it has been proof-read by your colleague.

Our house style in detail

Avoid using lots of abbreviations and acronyms. Writing in Plain English and using headings and the active voice will help reduce the need for abbreviations and acronyms.

  • You can use commonly known acronyms for brands and organisations without writing them in full first, for example, BBC or NHS.
  • The first time a name is used, put its abbreviations/acronym in brackets after it, for example:, special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). When using the name again in the same text use the abbreviation/acronym instead.
  • Consider the design and layout of the page - if there is more than one concept on the page or anchor links, it is likely they will miss the first reference for the abbreviations/acronym.
  • Do not give an abbreviation if there will be no further mention of the name. 
  •  Eg and ie – spell out in full, where possible so eg = for example.

Use an active rather than passive voice, this will help to write concise, clear content. Aim to make about 80% to 90% of your verbs active. Sentences will be shorter, and more direct in the active voice.

To explain the difference between active and passive verbs, we need to look briefly at how a sentence fits together. There are three main parts to almost every sentence:

  • a subject (the person, group or thing doing the action);
  • a verb (the action itself); and
  • an object (the person, group or thing that the action is done to).

To give an example, in the sentence 'Peter watched the television':

  • the subject is Peter (he is doing the watching);
  • the verb is watched; and
  • the object is the television (it is being watched).

There will usually be lots of other words as well. For example: 'Peter, the boy from number 13, watched the television every Friday night'. But the subject, verb and object are still there. 'Watched' is an active verb here. The sentence says who is doing the watching before it says what is being watched.


With a passive sentence, the object becomes the subject and the subject becomes the object. The television (subject) was watched (verb) by Peter (object). Watched is a passive verb here.

You can see that by making the sentence passive, we have had to introduce the words 'was' and 'by', and the sentence becomes more clumsy.


Remember that the subject is not always a person and the object is not always a thing! Here are some more examples of how to turn a passive verb into an active verb.

This matter will be considered by the council on 23 July. (Passive)
We will consider this matter on 23 July. (Active)
Also see 'Addressing the audience' section

The riot was stopped by the police. (Passive)
The police stopped the riot. (Active)

The building had to be closed by the authority. (Passive)
The authority had to close the building. (Active)

Passive verbs cause several problems.

  • They can be confusing.
  • They often make writing more long-winded.
  • They make writing less lively.

There are times of course when it might be appropriate to use a passive.

  • To make something less hostile - 'this bill has not been paid' (passive) is softer than 'you have not paid this bill' (active).
  • To avoid taking the blame - 'a mistake was made' (passive) rather than 'we made a mistake' (active).
  • When you don't know who or what the doer is - 'the England team has been picked'.

Try to call the reader 'you', even if the reader is only one of many people you are talking about generally. If this feels wrong at first, remember that you wouldn't use words like 'the applicant' and 'the supplier' if you were speaking to somebody sitting across a desk from you.

Often the heading, page title, or intro para will set out who the intended audience is.

Here are some examples of this.

Applicants must send us...

  • You must send us...

We always tell customers before we...

  • We will tell you before we...

Advice is available from...

  • You can get advice from

Similarly, It is ok to use ‘we’ and ‘us’ 'our' instead of Cambridgeshire County Council or Peterborough City Council and ‘you’ instead of staff/public.

Take care when using apostrophes; they can be used to show that something belongs to someone, or something else, eg

  • Robert’s car had broken down
  • the world’s population is increasing

A common mistake is to put apostrophes into words that are straightforward plurals, eg do not write

  • ‘PC’s are part of everyday life’, instead write ‘PCs are....’,
  • ‘the GP’s meet on a regular basis’, instead write ‘the GPs meet ...’.

‘Its’ is also a word which doesn’t always need an apostrophe. It takes an apostrophe only when it is short for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’. For example, it’s a problem taking the train; it’s been a lovely day.

Apostrophes can be used to denote a missing letter or missing letters (see contractions).

The ampersand (&) should be used only where it is an officially recognised part of a name or brand, eg Mills & Reeve – otherwise write ‘and’ in full.

Do not use in page titles (and the URL)

Underlining, italics and overusing bold text make content harder to read, particularly for people with a visual or cognitive impairment.

  • Only use bold text to highlight a reference point or action, do not use bold text for a whole sentence or paragraph. To add emphasis in the right place, use front loaded sentences, heading and lists.
  • Don’t use underline, it should only be used to denote a hyperlink. (This underline style is applied when creating a hyperlink).
  • Don’t use italics, use "quotation marks" if referring to a document, scheme, initiative, or quoting someone

For web content you are most likely to use rounded brackets (parentheses):

  1. To enclose remarks made by an author.
  2. To give an authority, definition, explanation, reference, or translation.
  3. In the report of a speech, interruptions by the audience.

Square brackets [ ] enclose comments, corrections, interpolations, notes, question marks, or translations, which were not in the original text, but have been added subsequently.

Curly brackets { } can be used for formulae or as braces to enclose two or more lines.

Bullet point lists are useful for breaking up text and making information easier to understand. Bullet points act in the same way as a semi-colon in normal text and therefore do not need a semi-colon after them.

Bullet points can be used to show a list of information. When using them in this format, each word should have a lower-case letter as the beginning and the last word should have a full stop. For example

Fruit and vegetables included in five a day are:

  • bananas
  • carrots
  • grapes
  • dragon fruit.

Separate sentences can also be used in bullet points. In this case each bullet point should be treated like a sentence with a capital letter at the beginning and a full stop at the end. For example:

How do I prevent a fall?

  • Exercising regularly can keep you fit, healthy and improve balance.
  • Talk to your chiropodist about keeping your feet healthy and wearing the correct type of shoes.
  • Supplements such as Vitamin D, help keep bones healthy and strong.

Numbered lists should only be used for information that follows a sequence of set steps. Each Step ends in a full stop because each should be a complete sentence.

  • Exercising regularly can keep you fit, healthy and improve balance.
  • Talk to your chiropodist about keeping your feet healthy and wearing the correct type of shoes.
  • Supplements such as Vitamin D, help keep bones healthy and strong.

Do not use BLOCK CAPITALS as some people find these difficult to read.

Capitals should only be used for proper nouns. Proper nouns refer to a particular person, organisation, place or thing including:

  • People's names
  • Organisation names
  • Place names - street names, towns, counties, countries and so on
  • Some well-known landmarks (Big Ben, the Pyramids)
  • Some significant days (New Year's Eve, Mother's Day)
  • Specific titles and ranks (Miss Scarlet, Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard)
  • Months and days of the week
  • Religions and religious holidays
  • The points of the compass (NW) and specific regions (the North West, South Manchester) but not general areas (north-west England, the south of Manchester)
  • The pronoun 'I'
  • The names of languages and nationalities
  • Trade names

Some further examples:

  • Write headings and subheadings in lower case. For example, Snappy heading like this, not Snappy Heading Like This.
  • Official bodies such as Cambridgeshire County Council, Peterborough City Council, House of Lords etc need capital letters. When referring to ‘the council’ a capital letter should not be used as it is not the full name.
  • When giving a name and job title we use John Smith, Chief Executive but not when just referring to a job. For example, chief executive.
  • If referring to Councillor Smith we would use a capital letter, if saying ‘the councillor said’ it would be lower case.
  • Conditions are lower case except where they start with a name – so cancer of the colon, multiple sclerosis, but upper case in the examples Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease as these are named after people.

Contractions, can make content more conversational.

Simple positive contractions may be fine.
Like: you'll, we'll, we're, they're, it's, I'll, there's.

Readability and misunderstanding

Avoid negative contractions like can’t, don’t, shouldn't – users find them harder to read, or misread them as the opposite of what they say. best to write these in full (do not).

Avoid conditional contractions. Examples: should've, would've, could've. People with cognitive challenges or a low literacy level find less often used, complex tense contractions like these hard to understand.

Dates and times should be displayed following these examples:

  • Tuesday 29 May 2022, not 29th
  • Months are written out in full, for example 10 November to 21 December, not Nov or Dec
  • When covering a period write 11-15 August or 2021-22
  • Seasons should be lowercase, for example autumn 2022
  • When referring to ‘today’ in a news article make sure you include the date as well, for example “The minister announced today (14 June 2022) that...”
  • Always include the year in news articles, people may read old articles and assume it applies to the current year if they are found by search
  • 80s, the 1990s with no apostrophe
  • Always use 5.30pm (12 hour clock). Do not use 17.30 (24 hour format)
  • Midday is 12pm or 12 noon. Midnight is 12am or midnight.
  • Monday to Friday, 9am to 5.30pm, not Mon-Fri

Use words for numbers from one to ten, and figures for 11+. 

The following exceptions are allowed:

  • Always write the number out in words at the start of a sentence. 
  • Always use numbers in a table
  • Always use numbers when writing a measurement with and abbreviation, for example £30, 5mm, or 50%
  • Avoid mixing words and figures in the same phrase, for example, 5 to 30 people. Although it is ok where there are separate subjects - Four people had 60 chocolates to share. 

Ages

  • When writing about development stages or ages always use numbers, for example Year 6, Key Stage 2, or 3-4 year-olds, Children aged over 1 year and 8 months.
  • The law is 8 years old
  • You don't have to include (year-old) where it is clear - John Smith, 32, a doctor.

Ranges

  • Use "to" rather than a dash for a range, for example "500 to 900"

Ordinals

Ordinals (first, second, third etc) should always be typed in full, not 1st, 2nd, 3rd. For example, Mr Smith went to the library for the second time on 14 December 2022.

Percentage

  • Use % unless it is the first word of a sentence.
  • If something rises from 10% to 12%, it does not rise 2% but two percentage points as the actual increase is 20%.

Monetary value

  • Put commas in thousands, for example 1,000 or 33,000
  • Write 3.5 million not 3 ½ million or 3.5M, or 3,500,000
  • Write 500,000 not 0.5 million for numbers less than a million
  • Write out pence in full, for example calls will cost 10 pence per minute from a landline
  •  Write £75 not £75.00, or 75 pounds, you don’t need to include decimals for whole numbers

Measurement, weights

  • Abbreviations of weights and measures can be abbreviated where the meaning is clear (4lb, 40mm, 20cm 10m). There should not be a space between the number and the measure. In a table the unit of measure should be written in full in the header row - eg 'metres' and the data in numbers.

The oblique symbol ‘/’ means ‘or’ and should only be used in tables, and website addresses. In body text always write out ‘or’.

Adding a '/' to a page title could create issues with the url path (web address).

Short sentences

A sentence is a group of words that makes complete sense. Try to aim for no more than 15 to 20 words in a sentence. Remember that no matter how many commas, semicolons and colons you put in, long sentences can be confusing.

Try to have no more than two or three statements in a sentence. Sentences can contain one statement: 'I fed the dog.' or more than one statement: 'I fed the dog and then I went to the pet shop to buy more dog food.' The second sentence covers three things.  

Sentences end with a full stop, but they can also end with a question mark or an exclamation mark.

Do not type a full stop after, or within abbreviated words. (etc. e.g.) 

Question mark

We use question marks at the end of direct questions, for example 'How can I make a referral?'

We can use questions to introduce key words to a webpage that a user may be entering into a search engine. The question may take the form of a heading or the title for an accordion (drop down) question and answer format. 

Exclamation mark

An exclamation mark often demonstrates emotions such as anger, irritation, surprise, or excitement. It can also be used to express that something is unclear. For this reason, exclamation marks are not used very much in our web content.

Punctuation within sentences.

Commas

  • A comma is most commonly used to indicate where there would be a natural pause in speech. 'It was a tiring day, so tiring he fell asleep on the train and missed his stop.'
  • A comma can also be used to separate items in a list. 'I bought bread, cheese, olives and white wine.'
  • We use a pair of commas, in the same way we use brackets, to separate parts of a sentence. 'I bought some olives, which we didn't eat, when I went shopping last week.'
  • Use a comma in figures over 999. For example 1,500

Semicolon

A semi-colon is helpful in lists that include commas: “He had appeared in several West End productions, including The Mousetrap and Run for Your Wife; in films such as Carry On up the Khyber; and in a range of television programmes.”

Use sparingly. It is often better to create two shorter sentences, or use bullet lists

Colon

A colon can act as a break in a sentence when we expect something to follow.

'Only four contestants remained: Louise, Jack, Michael and Ruby.'

We most commonly use colons to introduce lists.

Please send us your:

  • filled-in application form
  • proof of your identity
  • last five bank statements.

Hyphens and Dashes

Hyphens are becoming less common, most words such as those starting re- and co- do not use a hyphen (coordination, email).

However, do use a hyphen when two or more words are joined together (multi-agency, one-to-one, face-to-face).

Don't use a hyphen (-) in replace of a colon, dash to denote a pause.

Dashes are longer (—) with a space either side It denotes a major break or pause and should not be overused. The core values — inclusiveness, sustainability, responsibility and respect.

Quoted speech is opened by a double quote (“) and closed with a double quote (”) and this includes a quotation within a quotation. The full stop goes before the closing speech mark. A closing mark should not be used until the end of the quoted piece. Double quote marks “ “ should only be used for direct speech.

Single quotation marks may be used to enclose a technical term or phrase or words used in a special or extraordinary way.

Quoted text should be followed by the source.

Don't use italics.

There are plenty of words that sound and look similar. Here are some everyday examples you might come across.

Accept and except

  • Accept – means to receive something – I’d love to accept the invite to the AGM.
  • Except – means to exclude something – Everyone went to the AGM except those who weren’t invited.

Aloud and allowed

  • Aloud – means audible – I read the statement aloud to the media.
  • Allowed – is the means to allow/give permission – You are allowed to borrow the director’s office.

Compliment and complement

  • Compliment – means to give praise or admiration – Everyone complimented him on great presentation.
  • Complement – means to make something perfect/complete something – The graphs complemented the presentation perfectly.

Council and counsel

  • Council – means the authority body – Peterborough City Council is based at the Town Hall/Cambridgeshire County Council is based at New Shire Hall.
  • Counsel – means to help and give advice to – She needed counselling after a bite from a spider.

Effect and affect

  • Effect – is a noun, it means a result – The lack of paper had no effect on the running of the council.
  • Affect – is a verb, it means to influence – Eating too much can affect your blood pressure.

It’s and its

  • It’s means “it is” – It’s possible to get help if you’re a carer.
  • Its mean an item belonging to another item – Its fruit is the best in town.

Lets and let’s

  • Lets means to allow - She lets the nurse take some blood every week.
  • Let’s means let us – Let’s go and see if we can get help to stop smoking

Loose and lose

  • Loose – means not tight or fastened – His trousers were loose after cutting out burgers.
  • Lose – means to misplace or not win something – I hope I lose the pie eating contest.

Practice and practise

  • Practise – means to do something repeatedly to learn it – I’ve practised my presentation.
  • Practice – is a noun – There’s an asthma clinic at my GP practice.

Stationery and stationary

  • Stationery – means pens, paper, and envelopes – The stationery cupboard is now open.
  • Stationary – means not moving, still – The cars were stationary on the road after a goose ran onto it.

Their, there and they’re

  • Their – means belonging to many - Their social worker was really kind.
  • There – means a place – The office is located over there.
  • They’re – means they are – They’re the best team in the whole council.

Two, too and to

  • Two – is the written version of the number 2 – When they did the ultrasound, there were two babies.
  • Too – means excessively or also/as well – Getting a library membership was not too much trouble or I need tablets for my headache too.
  • To – can be added to a verb or used to show direction – I am going to start running tonight or I went to the gym tonight.

Weather and whether

  • Weather – means rain, sunshine, snow – The weather in Cambridgeshire is amazing.
  • Whether – is used to introduce alternatives/possibilities – I don’t know whether I can make it the Town Hall for a meeting.

Whose and who’s

  • Whose – means belonging to - I wonder whose photocopying has been left by the photocopier.
  • Who’s – means who is or who has – I wonder who’s going to do my photocopying?

You’re and your

  • You’re – means you are - You’re the best team in Cambridgeshire.
  • Your – means belonging to - Your stop smoking service is excellent.

Use spaces between city and local exchange.

Here are some examples:

  • 01273 800 900
  • 0800 890 567

When creating a hyperlink for a telephone number enter
Tel:01273800900 (no spaces)

Tone is just as important as spelling and punctuation and our style is to be professional but friendly and human at the same time.

We write conversationally – picture your audience and write as if you were talking to them one-to-one but with the authority of someone who can actively help. Write as if you were talking to a colleague or friend.

We choose our words carefully - only saying what is necessary. We are not afraid to be instructional and punchy. Allowing our users to complete their task quickly and move on.

Say 'we' instead of 'Cambridgeshire County Council', and 'you' rather than staff/public. It makes us sound more helpful and human.

Make sure text is gender neutral wherever possible, use them, their and they.

A sample of words to avoid and their alternatives.

  • additional (extra)
  • advise (tell)
  • applicant (you)
  • commence (start)
  • complete (fill in)
  • comply with (keep to)
  • consequently (so)
  • ensure (make sure)
  • forward (send)
  • in accordance with (under, keeping to)
  • in excess of (more than)
  • in respect of (for)
  • in the event of (if)
  • on receipt (when we/you get)
  • on request (if you ask)
  • particulars (details)
  • per annum (a year)
  • persons (people)
  • prior to (before)
  • purchase (buy)
  • regarding (about)
  • should you wish (if you want)
  • terminate (end)
  • whilst (while)

Always use positive language about disability

Avoid: afflicted by, sufferer, victim of
Prefer: people living with, people with

Avoid: handicapped, invalid, sufferer
Prefer: a person with learning difficulties / a person with diabetes

Avoid: Wheelchair bound
Prefer: Wheelchair user

Use - Sam is a person with learning difficulties/disabilities, she is working with us on...
Don't use - Sam is handicapped and suffers from a learning disability, she is working with us on...

Further guidance on writing well for websites

Please refer to the GOV.UK writing style guide or Plain English Campaign for anything not covered in our style guide.