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Common usage, formatting, and punctuation

Common usage



Common usage

Acronyms and abbreviations

The first time you refer to an organization or project that uses an acronym, write out the full name and follow with the abbreviation in parentheses.

  • Example: The General Services Administration (GSA) oversees the business of the U.S. Federal Government.

Some names are more recognizable when they are abbreviated, as with IBM and FBI. In such instances, the acronym is always acceptable and you don’t need to spell out the full name at first use.

If possible, use a shortened version of the name, and not the acronym, in your second reference.

Readers can understand a shortened name without having to think about the first reference. This also helps prevent confusion between identical or similar acronyms.

  • Example: Use Parks & Rec instead of PPR.

  • Example: Use the Act instead of Fire and Police Employee Relations Act.

  • Example: Use Commerce in place of Department of Commerce, rather than DOC.

  • Example: Use Corrections in place of Department of Corrections, rather than DOC.

Only use abbreviations without any explanation if they are in common use among the targeted readership (e.g., ZIP code, HTML, CSS PDF, URL and, in some cases, IT).

Acronyms should be capitalized. Otherwise, avoid unless they make the text easier to read.

  • Example: ZIP is an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan.

Do not use an apostrophe to form the plural of an acronym.

  • Example: Did you receive the PDFs?

“Active vs. passive voice”

See active and passive voice in our writing style guide.


When giving addresses spell out the street name entirely, but abbreviate the type of street (St., Rd., Blvd., etc).

  • Example: 1401 John F. Kennedy Blvd.


Since some of those people living within the city might not be citizens, we prefer to use “residents” or “individuals.”


Use numbers for dates and years.

Don’t use st, nd, rd, or th.

When you use months with a date, only abbreviate the following months: Jan., Feb., Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov., and Dec.

  • Example: The Phillies’ opening day is April 8.

  • Example: The first day of school will be Wednesday, Sept. 9 this year.

You don’t need to use a comma if only a year and month are given.

  • Example: I began my job in December 2017.

You do need a comma when date, month, and year are given.

  • Example: Philadelphia was founded on Oct. 27, 1682.

Capitalize days of the week and do not abbreviate unless space is limited. When space is limited, abbreviations for days of week should be used.

  • Example: Mayor Kenney will be speaking at the event on Thursday.

  • Example: M, Tu, F 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.; W, Th, Sa, Sun 7:30 a.m. - 4 p.m.

“Emigrate from / immigrate to”

Emigrate means to leave one country or region to settle in another.

  • Example: In 1900, my grandfather emigrated from Russia.

Immigrate means to enter another country and reside there.

  • Example: Many people immigrate to the United States to find work.

Figurative language

See figurative language in our writing style guide.

Inclusive language

See inclusive language in our writing style guide.

“Historic / historical”

In general usage, historic refers to what is important in history.

  • Example: A historic summit meeting between the prime ministers

Historical applies more broadly to whatever existed in the past, whether it was important or not.

  • Example: The City eliminated the Department of Horse and Buggies, a historical department, in 1909.

“Login / log in”

One word when used as a noun or adjective.

  • Example: What’s your login name?

Two words when used as a verb.

  • Example: Hurry up and log in!


Use English units of measure (e.g., foot, mile, gallon and pound). Spell out units of measure, except after numbers, where abbreviations (e.g., ft., lb., m.p.g.) may be used. Avoid the use of measurement symbols (e.g., # for pound), including in tables.

  • Example: 23 ft. high

  • Example: 6 ft. 2 in.

  • Example: 144 sq. ft.

  • Example: 12 ft. x 12 ft.

  • Example: price per pound


Use the City government directory to find the official name of an office, department, or commission. Use that name consistently.

  • Example: Department of Revenue

  • NOT: Revenue Department

After the first reference on a page use the shortened name.

  • Example: File your City taxes with the Department of Revenue. If you have trouble paying your taxes, Revenue has a variety of assistance programs.

For people, on initial mention, use First Name Last Name. Subsequent mentions use only last name. If two individuals in a story have the same last name, use First Name Last Name in every instance.

  • Example: John Jones said that city government is the most fulfilling job he’s ever had. Jones joined his department in 1994.

  • John Jones and Casey Jones say their work in city government is essential. John Jones joined his department in 1994. Casey Jones began her work with the City in 2001.


Spelling out numbers one through nine; use numerals beyond that (10, 11, etc.).

Spell out a number when it:

Occurs at the start of a sentence.

  • Example: Twenty minutes later, the last cyclist crossed the finish line.

Is a fraction used as an estimate.

  • Example: one-half, two-thirds, three-quarters

Use digits instead of spelling out a number when it:

  • Includes a decimal point.

  • Example: At that time, the average age for marriage was just 18.7 years old.

Is part of a percentage

  • Example: 19 percent of registered voters

Is part of a range of numbers

  • Example: the coveted 18–34 demographic; working 9 to 5


Always use digits to express ages.

  • Example: 5 years old

Decimal points

Use a leading zero (0.05, not .05) for numbers between minus one and plus one. Use a consistent number of decimal places within a document.


Spell out and hyphenate all numbers less than one.

  • Example: one-half, two-thirds

Separate fractions from a preceding whole number with a space.

  • Example: 5 ½


Always use figures in measurements.

  • Example: 5 feet by 20 feet


Use the dollar sign ($) for amounts given in United States Dollars (USD). For fractional amounts under $1.00 that do not occur in a chart or list, use digits for the number and spell out the word “cents.”


Project estimates are expected to exceed $289.5 million after the storm damage is assessed.

  • Example: In 2014, the cost of producing a penny dropped to 1.7 cents, down from 2.4 cents in 2011.


Use digits rather than spelling out the number and spell out the word “percent” (one word) when including percentages in prose writing. Use the percentage sign (%) when including percentages in charts, lists, and brief summaries.

  • Example: The study showed a 5 percent decrease in obesity rates among students aged 5 to 18.

  • Example: Late fee: 5% of the total due, plus an additional 0.5% for every month the bill is not paid.

Phone and fax numbers

Use parentheses and a space to separate the area code from the rest of a phone or fax number. Use a hyphen (-) between the third and fourth digits that follow the area code.

  • Example: Call (215) 686-0306 to find out if the building where you live is being managed by a court-appointed receiver.

  • Example: You can pay delinquent property taxes with a credit card by calling (877) 309-3710.


Use “to” when constructing number ranges within sentences. An en dash may be used in place of “to” outside of sentences to save space.

  • Example: 20 to 30 days

  • Example: Hours 5–8 p.m.


Do not use an apostrophe when pluralizing years.

  • Example: 1900s

See the “numerals” entry in AP Stylebook for complete guidance.


One word.


One word.

Passive voice

See active and passive voice in our writing style guide.

Plain Language

See plain language in our writing style guide.

Redundant phrases

See redundant phrases in our writing style guide.

“Set up / setup”

“Set up” is a verb that suggests the act of putting something together.

  • Example: He set up the meeting room.

“Setup” is the noun that represents the result or arrangement of what you have put together.

  • Example: We all agreed the new setup was an improvement.

State name abbreviations

Write out state names when not preceded by a city name. Use AP Stylebook abbreviations when following a city name. Set off on both sides with a comma if in the middle of a sentence. Never use postal abbreviations except when writing out a complete postal address.

  • Example: Our headquarters are in Philadelphia, Pa., but we serve the world.


Do not capitalize as part of a proper noun or title unless “the” is part of the trademarked or copyrighted name.

  • Example: New York City is also called the Big Apple.

  • Example: An article in The New York Times quoted the mayor.

  • Example: Listed as one of the Fortune 500, Acme was a great place to work.


Third-party (adjective) vs. third party (noun)

Always hyphenate the adjective, but never the noun.


The preferred structure for conveying event information in text is time-date-place. Use of the day of the week is optional. If the day is included, it should be spelled out.

  • Example: The press conference will be held at 2 p.m., Jan. 25 at the Municipal Services Building.

  • Example: The press conference will be held at 2 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 25 at the Municipal Services Building.


  • Use numbers to state exact times.

  • Use a.m. and p.m. for morning and afternoon.

  • Use noon and midnight to avoid confusion about 12 a.m. and 12 p.m.

  • Use a colon to separate hours and minutes, but don’t use a colon for something that occurs on the hour.

  • Example: The conference will start at 4 p.m.

  • Example: We pick up the mail at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m

  • Example: Lunch is at noon.

  • Example: Parking is legal until midnight.

  • Example: Parking rules are in effect from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

“Titles, job”

In general, capitalize job titles when they precede the individual’s name. Do NOT capitalize when they follow the individual’s name in a sentence.

  • Example: Senior Vice President of Marketing, Jim Smith, is a member.

  • Example: John Doe, vice president of operations, has been with Acme for 10 years.

See also, capitalization.

“Titles, media”

Italicize names of magazines, newspapers, books, newsletters and movies.

  • Generally avoid underlining.

  • Put names of reports and articles in quotation marks.

“United States / U.S.”

United States is a noun. U.S. is an adjective.

  • Example: Clams Casino is the most renowned dish in the United States.

  • Example: The company’s U.S. client base is extensive.


Avoid the word “user” in favor of more appropriate words, like “resident” or “individual.”

  • Example: Over 14,000 residents have signed up for the service.

  • Example: The Mayor estimates that some 36,000 individuals will be involved.

“Year and a half / year-and-a-half”

Hyphenate only when it is used as an adjective.

  • Example: A year-and-a-half assignment.

  • Example: A year and a half on the management team.

ZIP code

Capitalize. ZIP is an acronym for “Zone Improvement Plan.”


Block quotes

Use block quotes when you want to highlight a single sentence or phrase from within the body of your writing. Block quotes use text format and placement to highlight a particular issue so readers who scan can get the most important nugget from the story. Use block quotes sparingly to create the biggest impact.

  • Example:

“We are changing the way the City website serves our residents” - Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation


Unnecessary capitalization can come off as overly formal and unapproachable. We follow these capitalization guidelines:

Don’t use all capital letters. IT’S HARD TO READ AND CAN SEEM LIKE “SHOUTING.”

Don’t capitalize “federal” or “government.”

  • Example: Working for the federal commission was very rewarding.

  • Example: City government makes important decisions.

Don’t capitalize a job title unless it directly precedes a proper name.

  • Example: Write to Chief Technical Officer, Jane Doe.

  • Example: Write to the chief technical officer.

Do capitalize the word city when referring to the City of Philadelphia as an official organization.

  • Example: The City will announce pool openings on Friday.

  • Example: There are several City employees at the event.

Don’t capitalize “city” when it is used in an inclusive or general sense.

  • Example: Philadelphia was selected as the host city for the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

In Headlines, page titles, subheadings, follow sentence capitalization rules.

  • Example: How to pay your taxes.

When a heading includes a proper noun, that word should be capitalized, even if it does not appear at the beginning of the heading.

  • Example: How to celebrate summer in Philadelphia.

In titles, do not capitalize coordinate conjunctions (for example, “and,” “but,” “or”); or prepositions with four or fewer letters.

Do capitalize proper nouns.

  • Examples: Pennsylvania, World War II, Acme Explosives Company


Use common contractions like it’s, can’t, shouldn’t, and you’ll. Contractions are part of everyday conversation, so readers find them easy to understand.

Too many uses of it is, cannot, and should not can seem archaic and formal. We can move away from this without compromising the reliable and professional tone of information coming from government.


Bold calls attention to key information.

Italics are used under specific conditions, such as to indicate the title of a book. Avoid using italics to emphasize an idea or to create a sarcastic tone.

Underlining should not be used in web communications, as this can be reserved to indicate a link.

Links are most effective when they are specific and descriptive. When you create a link, highlight text that will give users a clear idea of what they will see if they follow the link. This is especially useful for people with vision impairments who use screen readers, and will often skip from one link to another as a way of skimming content.

  • Example: To be ready for the unexpected, you and your family need to make an emergency plan.

  • NOT: To be ready for the unexpected, you can find out how to create an emergency plan here.

No “click here”

Do not use “click here” as the label for any link. Since “click here” is not descriptive, it’s harder for people to find the linked content through a search engine. It’s also becoming an outdated term, since mobile devices involve tapping, not clicking.

When you create a link, think about where you are sending the user and why. Check to make sure that you have picked the most relevant and authoritative destination so users will get the best information available as quickly as possible. For example, if the Department of Public Health issues a statement that you are citing, link to the Health statement, rather than to an outside news story that quotes the statement.

You should also be consistent when determining what will happen when someone follows a link. follows these guidelines for opening new tabs or windows in a user’s browser:

Do not automatically open new tabs or windows

Do not set a link to open a new browser tab or window. This applies to any web page link, whether the link goes to another page or to an external website.

If the link will begin a new process (for example, starting a registration process for a license, paying a bill, or ordering something), do set the link to open in a new tab. This allows people to complete that new process while still referencing the original page.

When linking to a form or document, link to the document page that houses that form, rather than directly to the form. Document pages provide important context for files, group related forms together, and are regularly reviewed and updated.

Indicate when linking to a website outside of

When you are linking to a website outside of check the box that indicates that this website is not part of This helps users know they’ll be going to a new website, not a different page on For more information visit technical details on linking.

Because we use a .gov domain, it is important not to imply that the City endorses or favors any specific private-sector supplier. To avoid this perception, ensure that links to third parties meet a clear user need. Never include a link in return for cash or services. This includes requests for reciprocal linking.

Excessive linking can be confusing and overwhelming. If a resource, topic, or organization is referenced multiple times on one page you only need to link to it the first time. For example, if you refer to the Office of Property Assessment three times in a content item, link to it the first time but not the second or third times.


There are two types of lists: bulleted and numbered. Bulleted lists are known as “unordered” on the web, and numbered lists are known as “ordered.” Most lists should be unordered. Only use an ordered list if the order or number of items matters, as in a list of steps.

Bulleted lists Capitalize the first word of every bullet. Include a period only if the bullet point makes a complete sentence following the introductory phrase.

  • Example: When you go to the store, please buy:

  • Bread.

  • Milk.

  • Apples.

Plurals of lowercase letters

Use apostrophe + s to form plurals of lowercase letters.

  • Example: Don’t forget to dot your i’s.

What about plural of uppercase letters, like acronyms? There is no need for apostrophes indicating a plural on capitalized letters, numbers and symbols.


Usability expert Jakob Nielsen explains that PDFs are good for distributing documents and forms that need to be printed. However, PDFs have several limitations.

PDFs are:

  • Hard to read on computer and mobile screens.

  • Not always accessible to people with disabilities.

  • Not easily shared on social media.

For these reasons, avoid using PDFs for content you want people to read online.

White space

Whenever possible, use lots of white space.

White space, or negative space, refers to the unmarked parts of a page, including the space between lines, columns, and images.

Break up walls of text and keep paragraphs at four sentences or less to ensure sufficient white space.



Unless it is part of an official name or title, spell out “and” when writing for the web.


Brackets are used to indicate that the writer has replaced the original word in quoted text with a different word to clarify the speaker’s intended meaning.

  • Example: She attended [graduate] school.

  • Example: He sat in on [several courses] during his day visiting the university.


Capitalize the first word after a colon only if what follows is a complete sentence.

  • Example: I have several favorite foods: apples, bananas, and pita chips.

  • Example: I have several favorite foods: Apples were my first favorite snack, but pita chips are a rising star in my life.


We prefer the serial comma (sometimes called the Oxford comma). In a list of three or more, include a comma before the conjunction.

  • Example: Please buy bread, milk, and apples.


Different types of dashes are used in different situations.

Em dash

An em dash is a long dash. Use an Em dash to set off a phrase. Don’t use a single hyphen in place of an em dash.

  • Example: We emphasize open, digital record keeping, and—whenever possible—we illuminate our processes.

To make an Em-Dash

  • Mac: Option + shift + hyphen

  • Windows: Alt + 151 (#pad)

  • WordPress: Three consecutive hyphens

En dash

An en dash is shorter than an em dash. Use an en dash to convey a range. The en dash is also used in to show connected items. Don’t use a single hyphen in place of an en dash.

  • Example: The program is open to children ages 10-12.

  • Example: He referred to the Sarbanes–Oxley Act.

To make an En-Dash

  • Mac: Option + hyphen

  • Windows: Alt + 150 (#pad)

  • WordPress: Two consecutive hyphens

See also “hyphen.”


Ellipses indicate things left unsaid. They are often used to shorten quoted material, removing irrelevant words without changing the meaning. Unless used to shorten a quote, write around them as much as possible. If they are absolutely necessary, they should be treated as a word, with spaces before and after.

  • Example: The sign said “no eating, drinking, or smoking,” becomes, The sign said “no … smoking.”


The hyphen indicates conjunction and has several uses:

Use a hyphen when the letters brought together:

  • Are the same

  • Are vowels

  • Form an uncommon word

  • May be misread

Use a hanging hyphen when two compound adjectives are separated

  • Example: three- and four-digit numbers

Hyphenate two-word numbers from 21 to 99 when presented as words

  • Example: sixty-six

Hyphenate fractions

  • Example: six-eighths

Do not hyphenate other multi-word numbers

  • Example: two hundred (not two-hundred)

See also “Dashes” which are more often used than hyphens.


Parentheses are used to set off nonessential information in a sentence.

  • Example: The director (and the deputy director) attended the gala.

Parentheses are also used to set off area codes in phone numbers. Type one space after the area code in parentheses.

  • Example: (215) 867-5309

Periods and spaces

Do not separate acronyms with periods or blank spaces.

Examples: GOP, NASA, OBE, GmbH

Many periods and spaces that were traditionally required have now dropped out of usage.

  • Example: “PhD” is preferred to “Ph.D.”

Truncated (“Hon.” for “Honorable”), compressed (“cmte.” for “committee”) and contracted (“Dr.” for “Doctor”) abbreviations may or may not be closed with a period.

Type only one space after a period.

Quotation marks

Below are examples of correctly punctuated quotations:

  • “Would you like a banana?” he asked.

  • “I hate bananas,” she said. “You know I hate bananas.”

  • He paused before saying, “Bananas are not something people should hate.”

Quotation marks should NOT be used to indicate emphasis or emotion, nor should they be used to set off proper names.

  • Example: Get ready for hurricane season.

  • NOT: Get ready for “hurricane season.”

  • Example: We are currently understaffed but we will do our best to get to your concern in a timely manner.

  • NOT: We are currently understaffed but we will “do our best” to get to your concern in a timely manner.

  • Example: Joe Johnson became the head of the Department of Human Affairs in June 1999.

  • NOT: Joe Johnson became the head of the “Department of Human Affairs” in June 1999.


You can use semicolons at the end of bullet points. If you choose to punctuate your bulleted list this way, do not capitalize the first letter in each bullet point unless it is a proper noun. Place a coordinating conjunction after the semicolon of the penultimate bullet point.

  • Example: Acceptable forms of identification include:

  • driver’s license;

  • birth certificate; or

  • Social Security card.