Writing Principles

Find spelling and punctuation rules, naming conventions, and other traits that characterize the USAGov writing style.

Spelling and Punctuation Rules

If you have a specific question that isn’t addressed in the USAGov Platform Style Guide, consult the United States Government Publishing Office Style Manual

Spelling

Generally, we follow the United States Government Publishing Office Style Manual spelling guidance, but we do use some exceptions.

  • Do not include hyphens in gerunds: “rulemaking” rather than “rule-making.”
  • Use email, not e-mail
  • Online; not on-line
  • Use "on-site" an adjective or adverb before a noun and "on site" after a noun.
  • Use web page; not webpage
  • Use website; not web site
  • Eastern Time or ET; not EST or EDT
  • PO Box; not P.O. Box
  • U.S.; not US
  • Use health care, not healthcare

Punctuation Rules

We generally follow the United States Government Publishing Office Style Manual punctuation rules, as well as the guidance below.

Dashes and Hyphens
Use en-dashes instead of hyphens:

Use em-dashes instead of hyphens:

  • In sentences (without spaces): “And the government worked fast—internet time—to launch it and to keep it responsive to the American people and the world.”

Use hyphens:

  • For all other cases, such as phone numbers (1-202-720-2791).

Commas

Use serial commas before a conjunction in a series of items. A serial comma is a comma that comes before the final conjunction (and, but, or) in a list. 

  • Spanish: No serial commas are necessary unless there is a conjunction in a clause immediately before the last conjunction of the sentence; for example, ese vestido es bonito, azul y blanco como querías, y te queda muy bien.

Periods and More

In bulleted and numbered lists, do not use a period or other punctuation after titles or phrases
that are not complete sentences (also good for accessibility).

  • Spanish:
    • Exclamation points and question marks need to be opened and closed: ¿ ? ¡ !
    • Punctuation marks are written outside of quotation marks, parentheses, and dashes.
    • Plural form of organization names or countries are made by using double letters, a period and a space after the first double letters: ferrocarriles (FF. CC.), Estados Unidos (EE. UU.).     

Grammar Resources

If you need to look up some grammar rules, see these helpful resources in English and Spanish:

English 
For a quick grammar reference, visit: 
The University of Illinois Writers' Workshop
Grammar Girl

Spanish 
For a quick grammar reference, visit: 
Fundéu

Back to Top

Capitalization

DON’T USE BLOCK CAPITALS TO WRITE TEXT FOR DIGITAL ASSETS.

Bullet Lists
Capitalize the first word in each bullet.

  • English
    • Capitalize: 
      • All major words in titles (including small words, such as “Is” and “It”); for example, “Business and Economics”
      •  
    • Do Not Capitalize: 
      • The first word after a colon unless it begins an independent clause
      • Government, including federal government and U.S. government
      • The words "web" or "internet"
      • Most prepositions in titles, such as “People with Disabilities” (however, capitalize prepositions with five or more letters: “Honor Among Thieves”)
         
  • Spanish
    • Capitalize:
      • Cardinal points
      • Acronyms
      • First word of a title
      • First word after an em (—) dash and forward slash (/)
      • The word Gobierno
         
    • Do Not Capitalize: 
      • Days of the week and months
      • The word "internet"
      • First word after a colon 
      • Languages and nationalities
      • Words in parenthesis, unless it’s an acronym

Back to Top

Dates and Times

Dates

  • English – October 3, 2014
    • Use standard abbreviations when characters are limited: 10/3/2014
       
  • Spanish – use either format depending on the publishing channel, character limitation, etc.:
    • 3 de octubre de 2014
    • 3 octubre 2014
    • 3 oct. 2014 (only when character limitations require it)

Times

Don’t include periods between AM and PM because of mobile limitations and style consistency among the Consumer Action Handbook (CAH)/web/marketing practices, regardless of other agencies’ use.

  • Use: 
    • 6:00 AM or 6:00 PM
       
  • Do Not Use:
    • Military time: 18:00 hs
    • 1 am or 1 pm

Back to Top

Numerical Information

Phone Numbers

  • Format a phone number (including toll-free numbers) like this: 1-202-720-2791
  • Format the USAGov Contact Center phone number like this: 1-844-USA-GOV1 (1-844-872-4681)

Numerical Information in Spanish:

  • Money: Use the American way to write numbers:
    • Use: $1,276.50
    • Do not use: $1.276,59
       
  • Ordinal numbers – Commonly used:
    • Abbreviated: 1ro. or 1º, 2do. or 2º, 3ro. or 3º…
    • Feminine gender case: 1ra. or 1ª, 2da. o 2ª, 3ra o 3ª …
       
  • Use of billion and trillion:
    Translation in the United States
    • Billion = Billón (1,000,000,000)
    • Trillion = Trillón (1,000,000,000,000)

Back to Top

Abbreviations, Acronyms and Addresses

In general, avoid abbreviations and acronyms. 

  • Use “and” rather than “&” unless there is a compelling reason; for example, an agency’s official name such as Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
  • If an agency’s acronym is commonly used, place it in parentheses following the agency’s full name on first use, and use the acronym in subsequent instances. FBI, IRS, or FEMA are examples of agency acronyms that are more familiar to people than the full agency name.
  • Spell out the full name of an agency and programs in listings of federal, state, or local government agencies: General Services Administration, not GSA.
  • Write acronyms in all caps and without periods between the letters: USDA, not U.S.D.A.
     
  • Spanish
    • Acronyms in plural form: use this "los DVD," "muchas ONG" 
    • When using articles or modifiers is not possible, use DVDs, PCs, ONGs. 
    •  If an English acronym is used, include the acronym, a comma and sigla en inglés (GSA, sigla en inglés).

Addresses

We follow the USPS Street Abbreviation guidelines. However, we do not write the abbreviations in all caps. Examples include:

Street = St.
Avenue = Ave.
Parkway = Pkwy.
Boulevard = Blvd.

Back to Top

Text Formatting

Hyperlinking

When including hyperlinks in text, be sure the hyperlinked text is descriptive of its destination and/or purpose. Use unique link titles for each link destination. Provide only as many links that are necessary for users to complete tasks rather than providing too many link options. See additional instructions for Spanish.

 

Spanish

When a link text takes the reader to an English page, hyperlink (en inglés) also:

 

Hyperlinking to alternate file formats

Avoid hyperlinking to alternate file formats when possible. If you must link to a PDF, the CMS will automatically add the needed PDF information after the link. The PDF information (PDF, Download Adobe Reader) will only be visible in the published version of the asset. 

For Print 

  • When indicating that text is a web address in printed content, apply one style enhancement, such as colored, bolded, or underlined text. There isn't one preferred style to use, but no matter which style you choose, apply it consistently.
  • Full web addresses should be included in printed text, rather than shortened URLs.
  • While shortened URLs work fine when posted as a link on a website, email, or in the electronic version of a PDF, these character strings may not work for print publication readers who type the shortened URL directly into a browser.

Italics

  • English: Use italics sparingly, because they’re hard to read on a screen.
  • Spanish: Use quotes or italics only when referring to other language text within a Spanish narrative.

Email Addresses

Write email addresses in lowercase and as active links. 

Back to Top

Naming Conventions

  • The standard is African Americans, Hispanic Americans and/or Hispanics, and Asian Americans, with other ethnic groups following the same standard.
  • Do not use “Latino” to refer to Hispanics.
  • Other Groups 
    • American Indians and Native Americans
      • American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and American Samoans are all Native Americans. 
      • Some government programs and benefits are specifically for American Indians and not for all Native Americans. Follow the wording the agency administering the program uses to describe which programs serve which groups. 
      • Spanish:
        • Use Mes de la Herencia Nativa Americana when referring to National Native American Heritage Month.
        • Use Mes del Indio Americano when referring to National American Indian Heritage Month.
    • Disabilities and Mental Health
      • Use “people with disabilities” and not “the disabled,” “disabled people,” or “victim of.”
      • Spanish: Use “personas con discapacidades,” not “discapacitados.” 
  • GobiernoUSA.gov does not use “los” before Estados Unidos.  Translate the United States as Estados Unidos.
Share This Page: Facebook Twitter Email

Back to Top

Last Updated: October 19, 2017

Do you need help?

Ask us any question about the U.S. government for free. We'll get you the answer or tell you where to find it.

What you think matters!