Digital.gov Style Guide

We encourage you to use the guidelines below to ensure that content on digital.gov is clear, concise, and benefits the widest possible audience.

🎉 Welcome to the Digital.gov style guide!

Below you’ll find guidance for voice and tone, author bios and photos, branding, grammar, images, plain language, inclusive language, and more. We will soon update details on how to submit to Digital.gov.

Voice and Tone

Articles for Digital.gov—written by employees from across the federal government—use an informal, conversational tone.

Conscious Inclusivity

Not everyone who uses government services or engages with federal agencies are U.S. citizens. When appropriate, use phrases or words such as: the public, users, people, or folks.

Additionally, where possible:

  • Avoid using gendered pronouns; instead, use they or their.
  • Avoid age-related descriptions of people unless absolutely necessary for the content; in those cases, try using older people or older person—instead of elderly or senior.

See the 18F Content Guide for more on inclusive language: https://content-guide.18f.gov/inclusive-language/

Grammar and Spelling

In general, we follow AP Style. Use plain language in your writing for clarity. Avoid using acronyms or jargon that may be unfamiliar to the general public or those outside your agency.

Capitalization

Capitalize proper nouns for people, places, and agency names.

Do not capitalize words like federal, government, or agency unless it is:

  • The first word in a sentence
  • An official title for or name of something
  • In a title or header (see Content Titles and Headers below)

Publication Titles

Blogs, magazines, books, etc. are in normal text (i.e., no italics or underlining). Ideally, the titles will be linked to the work that is being referenced.

Courtesy and Professional Titles

On first reference, introduce people by their first and last names without a courtesy title (e.g., Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Sir, Madam, Dr.).

If a person’s gender isn’t clear from their first name (e.g., Chris, Pat, Lesley, Jean), make this clear by referring to them by the appropriate pronoun after the first reference.

Content Titles and Headers

Format

We use title case for for all titles and paragraph headers. Only use end punctuation for headers that pose a question (e.g., What Did We Learn?). If you’re unsure, many free, web-based title case tools use the filters to get AP Style (Examples: titlecase.com and capitalizemytitle.com).

Size

Article titles should be set to H1, with any subsequent headers set as H2, H3, and so forth, in hierarchical order.

Do not use H3 or below to attempt to make the text appear bold; just apply bold formatting to the text with the Formatting Toolbar in Google Docs or Microsoft Word.

Numbers, Symbols, Dates, Time, and Places

Numbers

  • Write out all nine numbers under 10, except for percentages
  • Use the word percent; not the percent sign (use twenty-three percent, not 23%)

Symbols

Unless the symbol is part of a name or branding, use the word (e.g., use the word and instead of an ampersand & or a plus sign +).

Dates

  • Use the expanded form of Month Day, Year (e.g., February 16, 2018) to avoid confusion that may arise by using the numeric format—for users in some other countries, 01/11/2018 would mean November 1st; not January 11th.
    • For specific dates, use the full, four-digit year
  • Can abbreviate for informal dates (the ‘90s)
  • Include ordinal indicators (st, nd, rd, th) on dates (e.g., use November 23rd instead of November 23)

Time

  • Time descriptors “ante meridiem” (before noon) and “post meridiem” (after noon) should be abbreviated with lowercase letters as am and pm, respectively.
  • Use the 12-hour clock (8:00 am, 4:00 pm)
  • Avoid redundancies, such as, “10 am this morning”
  • Seasons (winter, spring, summer, fall, autumn) are not capitalized

Places

  • When referring to a number of states, the word “state” should be lowercase (e.g., All 50 states responded.)
  • Locations
    • District of Columbia: abbreviate as D.C. in copy, but use the official postal code, DC (without periods), for an address
    • United States: abbreviate as U.S.
    • In copy, spell out state names, such as California. This will help keep naming conventions consistent (while the 2-character abbreviation without periods is the current postal standard for addresses in U.S. states and territories, older versions are still used by some people), and it can help avoid confusion; people often mix up the abbreviation for Louisiana (LA) with the one for Los Angeles (L.A.)

Agency Abbreviations

Initialisms and Acronyms

To avoid confusion, always provide the full name of an agency or program the first time you mention it, followed by its abbreviation (an initialism or acronym) within parentheses. You can then use just the abbreviation elsewhere in the copy. Example:

Lorem ipsum National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat.

Duis aute irure dolor NASA in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Initialism examples:

OMG, LOL, BIA, GSA, FBI, OPM, SEO, CMS, HTML, CSS

Acronym (an initialism that is used as a word) examples:

scuba (scuba self contained breathing apparatus), laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging or RAdio Direction And Ranging), WYSIWYG, WCAG, NASA, OPEC, NARA, DARPA, INTERPOL, NATO, FEMA, SWAT

Note: Avoid redundancies, such as, “ATM machine” (automated teller machine machine) and “PIN number” (personal identification number number).

Pluralization

There is no need to add an s to the end of an initialism or acronym if a word in the original name is already plural.

For example, we use CoE for Centers of Excellence. Adding an s on the end—CoEs—would actually mean, Centers of Excellences.

Punctuation

Commas

In writing, oral pauses are indicated by commas. They are also used to order things, like lists, clauses, or a series of terms. Much like debates over what counts as a sandwich and the proper pronunciation for the image file type, gif, disagreements about whether or not to use an Oxford comma (also known as the Harvard comma and the serial comma) are quite common.

It can be confusing (or potentially costly in unexpected ways) to omit the Oxford comma, so, we’d like to err on the side of caution. As noted by AP Stylebook in their Twitter Chat on September 12, 2017:

  • “We don’t ban Oxford commas! We say: If omitting a comma could lead to confusion or misinterpretation, then use the comma.”
  • “But: If a comma doesn’t help make clear what is being said, don’t use it. “The flag is red, white and blue” is clear.”

So, use your best judgement. If anything is unclear, we’ll help you clarify.

Colons

After a colon, capitalize the next word if it starts a complete sentence (i.e., is not a fragment).

Apostrophe Abuse

Use an apostrophe to indicate:

  • Possession—”Agile also improves the development team’s ability to commit to work.”
  • Missing letters or numbers
    • Contractions: ”For example, with a bilingual English/Spanish website, we would’ve clearly labeled captions (for English text) and subtitles (for Spanish text).”
    • Date abbreviations: ”the ‘90s” (the apostrophe replaces the 19 in 1990s)

Do not use an apostrophe to make words plural. Ever. Ev. Er. 😉

Em Dash

You can easily offset a phrase within a sentence with the long em dash — instead of using parentheses, commas, colons, etc. (see link for examples).

Lists (Bulleted, Numbered)

If it’s a complete sentence, use punctuation (usually a period) at the end of the list; not after every bullet point.

If it’s a list of fragments, do not use punctuation at the end. Capitalize the first word in each bullet point.

i.e., vs. e.g.,

e.g. (exempli gratia), which is Latin for “for example, …” use it to list one or more examples i.e. (id est) is Latin for “in other words, …”

Digital.gov Branding

The overarching name of the site is Digital.gov. You may see references to “DigitalGov” in our archives, but going forward, it should be referred to as “Digital.gov”.

Logos

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Additionally, we often abbreviate Community of Practice as CoP, and we have over 20 communities listed on Digital.gov. However, they are run by federal employees at agencies across the federal government, so they don’t always follow the same naming conventions. If writing about them or topics covered in their listservs, you can get the full, proper name (and any alternates) from their individual Community pages on Digital.gov.

Name examples include: MobileGov, SocialGov, OpenGov, Open Data, PLAIN, Government Contact Center Council (G3C), Web Content Managers Forum, and Federal Community of Practice on Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science (CCS).

Image Use

Image File Types:

  • .jpg
  • .png
  • .gif (only if animated)

Image Dimensions:

Please always send us the original image, as large as possible. Our content management system (CMS) will optimize and resize photos as necessary.

Accessibility

All images require alt text and/or caption. Be descriptive, yet succinct. Take care to note if the image is an infographic, factoid, diagram, chart, photo, or logo. If related to a program, agency, or event, include the name and/or acronym (and if an event, please include the date).

Attribution

All images require source information. Below are some examples of requirements based on source:

  1. Thinkstock.com photos

Editorial Guide: http://www.thinkstockphotos.com/faq/editorial-images-guide

Images may be used on a website or blog if used for educational or informational purposes; not for commercial use or promotion of products/services.

Thinkstock Image Subscription Agreement: http://www.thinkstockphotos.com/legal/license-information-details#license_agreement Section 5.3 is for images used in a website/blog; section 5.4 is for images used in videos.

  1. Creative Commons (CC)

Best Practices for Attribution (with examples): http://wiki.creativecommons.org/Best_practices_for_attribution

  1. flickr photos (Digital.gov example)

Give attribution to photographers with CC license https://help.yahoo.com/kb/flickr/SLN7674.html

Definitions and general guidelines are available on Creative Commons website. We also provide guidelines for attributing Creative Commons content. However, specifics about how to attribute All Rights Reserved content are not provided. When in doubt, contact the photographer. See our forum thread about what is considered adequate attribution.

When searching Flickr, use filters to narrow results:

[flickr IMAGE] alt text: A screen capture of flickr.com search results. Seven filter options are circled in red (Advanced, Orientation, Minimum Size, Date Taken, Content, Search in, and Any License), and the drop down list for Any License is expanded to show various options. caption: Available search filters on flickr.com.

Free Image Resources

Below are some free image and media resources. Take care to read and supply any attribution requirements for images used from these sources

Note: Digital.gov does have access to Getty’s ThinkStock.com website (not free). If you wish to use an image from there, just include the URL for each image with your draft; we’ll log in, review, and download them for your posts.