13 May 2023
Web copy style
(Disclaimer: this was originally published by Matt Pfeffer in 2002. It is archived on the Web Archive but just in case the US courts decide to destroy it, I’m putting it here for preservation. In some cases, links have been amended if they were broken or outdated. Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer.)
This style guide seeks to serve as a resource for anyone writing or editing web copy, and to document some of the conventions that distinguish good writing, as published on the web, from writing published in other media. It is also intended as a complement to this site’s description of the principles of copywriting for the web.
This document does not offer a comprehensive guide to usage, nor is it intended as a replacement for such guides as the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook. But it is a living document, and with luck it will grow into a useful guide to written communication over the web.
The standards set herein are my own, though they owe a debt to other style guides I have seen, and to my experiences using them. Certain conventions (“web” and “website,” for example) reflect predominant usage online more than any personal preference on my own part, however.
You are free to use this style guide for any personal purpose; however, if you wish to excerpt any part of it elsewhere, please include an attribution and link to this site. Thoughts, suggestions and reactions of any nature are welcome.
Note: This is only a guide. Hopefully, most of its conventions will serve you well, but you may find some that you don’t like, or that don’t fit your writing style. Different writing styles demand their own particular rules, both online and in print. If any of the conventions described here don’t suit your purposes, do not hesitate to adopt your own.
If clarity and economy of expression are prized in print, they are doubly so on the web. Readers have short attention spans for web copy, and most designers have a penchant for small text sizes, making text harder to read. And, on many critical pages on a site, space for text is often at a premium.
Observing just a few guidelines can go a long way toward ensuring you can be easily understood:
- Get to the point. Use short words and phrases, rather than longer ones, and omit unnecessary words.
- Keep it simple. Express one thought at a time, and use plain language.
- Don't use metaphors, figures of speech, technical jargon or other writerly flourishes, unless they help make a point.
- Resist using sarcasm and irony; and when you find you can't resist, say so.
- Let your readers know when you are stating your own opinions. When you state a fact, tell them where you got it from.
Conventions commonly observed when writing and editing web copy are listed below. For terms and conventions not specified here, standard references include Merriam-Webster’s 10th Collegiate Dictionary, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style.
Within this style guide, accepted abbreviations indicate abbreviations that should be used on every reference, unless a term needs to be spelled out for sake of clarity. Acceptable abbreviations can be used at your discretion.
Use all caps for acronyms of two to four letters, except for letters that represent prepositions or determiners (a, an, or the). For example, for the Museum of Modern Art, write MoMA. In general, use initial caps for acronyms five letters and longer. For example, Nasdaq. There is one exception (documented here, so far): WYSIWYG.
Words referring to aggregates of individuals are treated like any other word (i.e., agreement is determined by whether the word is plural or singular). For example, The San Francisco Giants are going to win the pennant; They are going to win the pennant; The team is going to win the pennant.
Company names that are written in plural form take singular verbs and pronouns. For example, Cisco Systems is headquartered in San Jose, Calif. Generally, you can distinguish the two cases by introducing the word 'the' in front of the name in question. For example, The Giants are going to win the pennant. Not: *The Cisco Systems are headquartered in San Jose, Calif. Company names generally take the neuter pronoun it. For example, Microsoft restated its earnings.
See dates and times.
Introduce a bulleted list with a colon. For example, There are a number of things to keep in mind when writing a style guide: ... Capitalize the first letter of the first word of each bulleted item. Bulleted items must be parallel in construction. End bulleted sentences with periods (not semicolons or commas), and do not punctuate the end of fragments.
Avoid unnecessary capitalization. Only capitalize job titles if they precede the title holder's name. For example, Chief Executive Officer Jack Welch. Do not use all-caps for company names unless the name is an acronym. For example, IBM, One Touch Systems Inc. (not *ONE TOUCH Systems Inc.).
Avoid unnecessary punctuation and symbols in company names. For example, Yahoo, CNet, E-Trade Securities, Avanti.
Where a company name is spelled with an initial lowercase letter, do not capitalize the name at the beginning of a sentence. For example, eBay.
Use em-dashes (either coded as a dash (—) or typed as two hyphens (--)) to set off distinct thoughts within a sentence. In general, try to rephrase your thoughts to avoid this construction. Where used, treat an em-dash as a word, with a space on either side. For example, No one disputes that Thom — who spells his name with an 'h' — is a totally rad dude.
dates and times
Local conventions for specifying dates vary. To avoid ambiguity, either specify a date's month by name or letter abbreviation, or use the international standard date notation, yyyy-mm-dd. For example, Feb. 24, 1998, or 1998-02-24. (A summary of the international standard for date and time notation is here.)
Specify time of day by either using a 24-hour clock or omitting the seconds and using a.m. and p.m. For example, 17:15:23, or 5:15 p.m. Noon is 12:00:00 or 12:00 p.m.
In general, include the relevant time zone abbreviation when specifying the time of day. Time zone abbreviations are capitalized and separated from the time by a space. For example, 10:54 a.m. ET. (This list provides proper abbreviations for time zones.)
Place a 0 before decimals less than 1. For example, 0.27. In describing quantities in millions, use one decimal place at most. For example, $2.7 million. In describing billions (one billion being equal to one thousand million), use no more than two decimal places.
Use decimals instead of fractions.
Abbreviate with a dollar sign ($) when used to describe an amount. Spell out only when discussing the type of currency itself. Do not hyphenate adjectival phrases. For example, A $5 million bonus.
Minimize the usage of this term. Where possible, rephrase using Internet (adj.) or Internet company (n.).
Accepted abbreviation for digital subscriber line.
Do not hyphenate. (Note: While there is little consensus on the spelling of email, it is not hyphenated on most major websites (such as Yahoo, for example). It is generally hyphenated in other media, however.)
Keep to a minimum. Emoticons can be helpful in indicating sarcasm or good humor, but quickly become cloying and distracting.
Accepted abbreviation for graphics interchange format, a technique for compressing the size of a digital image file.
Follow AP style. Use the third-person masculine form (his, him, he) when an indefinite antecedent is male or female. For example, A good reporter protects his sources. It is preferable, however, to rephrase a sentence to avoid this construction. For example, Good reporters protect their sources.
Accepted abbreviation for HyperText Markup Language.
Use sparingly, and to avoid confusion. For example, a high-net-worth investor; a highly intuitive solution; a more involved project. Hyphenate complex phrases only to prevent ambiguity. For example, some more-involved projects.
Internet, the Net
Always give your readers a hint (or some sort of confirmation) that a particular passage is ironic. Even the most obvious instances are often misunderstood.
Accepted abbreviation for integrated services digital network.
Avoid technical terms if you can; most can be rephrased into meaningful English. If a term cannot be rephrased, it should be avoided, unless it is commonly used, accepted and understood.
Accepted acronym for joint photographic experts group, and for a technique of compressing color images.
log in (v.); log-in (n., adj.)
log out (v.); log-out (n., adj.)
Acceptable abbreviation for mobile e-commerce.
Do not use " for inches or ' for feet: For example, A 12-inch ruler; A 10-foot pole.
Spell out the following:
Use the following abbreviations (and don’t spell out when preceded by a numeric value):
- cm (centimeter)
- dpi (dots per inch)
- fps (frames per second)
- GB (gigabyte)
- GHz (gigahertz)
- Hz (hertz)
- Kb (kilobit)
- Kbps (kilobits per second)
- KB (kilobyte)
- KBps (kilobytes per second)
- KHz (kilohertz)
- Mb (megabit)
- Mbps (megabits per second)
- MB (megabyte)
- MBps (megabytes per second)
- MHz (megahertz)
- mm (millimeter)
- mph (miles per hour)
- ms (millisecond)
- ppm (pages per minute)
Do not hyphenate adjectival phrases using measured quantities with abbreviated units of measure. For example, He bought a 1200 dpi printer and a 10 GB hard drive.
Do hyphenate such phrases when the units are not abbreviated. For example, 'there was a 20-second delay before he dropped them both off the 200-foot cliff'.
One million is equal to 1,000,000, and can be abbreviated by M. For example, Mom & Pop Co. took a $23M accounting charge in 2002.
One billion is equal to 1,000,000,000, and can be abbreviated by B.
Accepted abbreviation for MPEG, Audio Layer 3.
Accepted abbreviation for Moving Picture Experts Group, and for a digital video compression standard created by that group.
Mr., Ms., Mrs.
Use only to avoid confusion; i.e., where an article or essay mentions two or more individuals with the same last name.
None can behave like a contraction for either "not any" or "not one," depending on context, and takes singular or plural verbs accordingly.
When used to indicate “how much,” none means “not any,” and is singular. For example, None of the water was left.
When used to indicate “how many,” none often means “not any,” but is plural. For example, How many companies are going to make a profit? None of them are (going to make a profit).
When none is meant to indicate “not one,” it is singular: None of them is bigger than any other.
Bullet points are preferred unless the exact order or the exact number of items is significant. Numbered lists follow the rules for bulleted lists outlined above.
Spell out numbers zero through nine. Use digits for 10 through 999,999. Above 1 million, spell out million, billion, trillion, etc. (One billion is one thousand million; one trillion is one million million.) For example, The company shipped 1 million units, but only 780,000 arrived intact.
Do not go more than one decimal place when spelling out the magnitude in millions, and two decimal places for billions. For example, $5.1 million. $5,104,300 also is acceptable.
Where describing a range, use to, not a dash. For example, There will be 20 to 25 people at the party.
Spell out all numerals (except for years) that begin sentences. For example, Twenty units were completely destroyed. 1999 was a very good year.
Always use numerals in addresses.
Always use numerals for measured quantities. For example, He was driving 5 mph. The PC ships with a 7 GB hard drive.
Do not shorten (to onto) unless the combination is used to mean "end up on top of." For example, Let's move on to better things; You can log on to the server; He jumped onto the car.
Always one word, no hyphen, when used to mean "not connected to the Internet." In all other uses, spell as two words, hyphenated. For example, The tracking system is still off-line.
Always one word, no hyphen, when used to mean "connected to the Internet."
Generally describes a spatial relationship, not a relative quantity or amount of something. In the latter case, use more than.
Accepted abbreviation for personal computer.
Accepted abbreviation for personal digital assistant.
Accepted abbreviation for Portable Document Format.
In general, spell out. Use numerals when spelling percentages. For example, A 5 percent increase. Do not hyphenate when forming compound adjectival phrases. For example, We discovered a 30 percent drop-off. The word percent can be abbreviated in graphs and charts. Drop the first "percent" when providing a range. For example, 25 to 35 percent.
Follow AP style. Use the third-person masculine form (his, him, he) when an indefinite antecedent may be male or female. For example, A good reporter protects his sources. It is preferable, however, to rephrase a sentence to avoid this construction. For example, Good reporters protect their sources.
Italicize the names of newspapers and magazines in print, and follow AP style. For example, italicize the name of the Wall Street Journal, but not WSJ.com.
Follow AP style, with the following exceptions:
When a quote within a quote ends at the end of the full quote, separate the ending quotation marks with a single space. For example, As Amy put it, “The guy was like, ‘Do you want chips with that?’ and I was like, ‘Duh!’ ”
Edit quotations for grammar and house style. Exceptionally, a violation of good grammar and house style should be preserved if and only if it conveys the speaker's deliberate attempt to express a specific attitude, mood, or other contextual element.
real time (n.); real-time (adj.)
San Francisco Bay area
Writers are somehow tempted to employ sarcasm far more often when online than off. This is usually a mistake. Sarcasm should only be employed with reluctance, and should be identified as such, either with a parenthetical remark (saying, for instance, "(Just kidding.)") or a statement (or even an emoticon) indicating amusement.
Use only when it serves to clarify a long or complex phrase.
spam (n., v.)
As a noun, this means unsolicited email. As a verb, to spam means to send unsolicited email.
startup (n.); start-up (adj.)
text editor (n.)
A software application used for manually coding a program or document.
See dates and times.
Accepted abbreviation: CEO. Acceptable abbreviations: CFO, COO and CTO (chief technology officer). Unacceptable abbreviations: *VP.
Chief executive is not a title and is not capitalized when preceding a name. For example, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs will lead the company out of its current woes. Vice presidents are ascribed divisions with of (not with commas). For example, Joseph Johnson was promoted to vice president of marketing.
Accepted abbreviation for uniform resource locator.
voicemail (n., adj.); voice-mailbox
web, World Wide Web
(Note: The word web is a proper noun, and would normally be capitalized, but is often not capitalized in web copy. It is, however, usually capitalized in other media.)
Follow the style for website names when referring to the site as a whole. When referring to the address of a specific web page (including a site's homepage), write out the full address, including the http://.
Use hyperlinks selectively, and keep them short. When linking text, link from a noun or noun phrase if possible, but link to a verb phrase if necessary to avoid confusion. For example: Dean Allen’s Textism is often very good. He once wrote a story about a cat. And he even uses the word “dude” sometimes. Not to mention these handy scripts he wrote for coding web pages. And Digital Web magazine says he was born in Vancouver!
(Note: There are usability considerations to take into account with regard to link text, in addition to stylistic ones. How you reconcile these is up to you; one good approach is to add titles to links. (Mark Pilgrim describes why.))
Sometimes shortened to blog and blogger.
(Note: The word website is often treated as one word in web copy, but is typically written as two words (Web site) in other media (in which the word Web is also often capitalized).)
In general, drop the www. For example, MetaFilter.com. Capitalize as the site treats its own name (avoiding excessive caps). For example, CNet.com, craigslist.org.
WYSIWYG (n., adj.)
Short for "What you see is what you get." A WYSIWYG (or WYSIWYG editor) is a tool intended to enable a designer to write and edit the code of a program or document by specifying its desired appearance, without typing the code by hand.
Accepted abbreviation for Extensible Markup Language.