We’re here to assist people in becoming empowered residents of the city. We do this both through the design of the digital experience, and through the language we use to communicate with the public and with each other.
This writing style guide, along with standards for common usage, punctuation, and formatting, help maintain consistent content throughout phila.gov.
In a rush? Use our web writing checklist to keep your writing on track. For more support, see our Language choices section.
Web writing checklist
Use plain language: City of Philadelphia websites are for everyone in the city. Write content in clear, simple terms. Avoid wordy descriptions and jargon. Use HemingwayApp, an online tool, to make your writing clear and concise.
Don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do.
Write conversationally: Picture your audience and write as if you were talking to them one-on-one and with the authority of someone who can actively help. Using contractions can help create a friendly, informal tone as well. Plainlanguage.gov offers helpful tips.
Write for diverse audiences: We write for a diverse audience of readers who all interact with our content in different ways. We aim to make content accessible to those with disabilities and to users of all cognitive capabilities. We use language that isn’t exclusionary and is nondiscriminatory. See the entry on Inclusive language below.
Be goal-oriented & appropriate: Before you start writing, ask: What purpose does this serve? What do people need to know? Do I give them the information using language that appropriately reflects my department?
Write in active voice
Be helpful: We want to always use a tone that has authority that also comes from a helpful, empathetic perspective.
Think resident-focused: Always write with the audience in mind. How might someone needing Parks and Recreation services have different needs and stress levels than someone in touch with the Department of Human Services? Understanding the audience helps our communications maintain a human-centered approach that treats those who use city services with dignity.
Make sure you’re accurate and complete: Communications should give the user the information they need and that information should be current and correct. Always remember to fact check your work! Offer a means of contact for more information. Don’t create a communications dead end.
Avoid commercial endorsements: Because we use a .gov domain, we can’t advertise or endorse commercial products, services, individuals, firms, or corporations. For more information, see the federal regulations on .gov domains. For questions or specific guidance, contact the Philadelphia Law Department.
Active vs. passive voice
Use active voice, not passive voice, whenever possible. Active voice makes it immediately clear who or what is performing an action.
- Example: The mayor recommends that city residents take shelter before the winter storm.
Passive voice describes a sentence that doesn’t state who or what is responsible for an action, or puts the “do-er” later in the sentence than the thing being done.
Example: It is recommended that city residents take shelter before the winter storm.
Example: A recommendation was made by the mayor to take shelter before the winter storm.
While readers usually prefer active voice, there are situations where passive voice is useful. This includes times when the acting person or thing is actually unknown, or when you want to draw attention to the object being acted upon.
- Example: The motorcycles were stolen late last night.
NOT: Someone stole the motorcycles late last night.
Avoid using figurative language. It often doesn’t say what you actually mean and can make your content more difficult to understand. For example:
Drive out (unless you’re talking about cattle, use “get rid of”)
Going forward (unless you’re giving directions)
In order to (extra words that usually mean the same thing as “to”)
One-stop shop (we’re the government, not a big box store.)
The City of Philadelphia works to use language that is inclusive, accessible, and welcoming.
We have provided principles, resources, and specific suggestions for writing about diverse groups of people, but this page is not exhaustive.
Do your research. Actively seek out resources to inform your writing. Give preference to resources created by the people and communities you’re writing about.
Use self-identification. Refer to people and communities using the terms they identify with. If you aren’t sure, just ask.
Use people-first language. Everyone is a person, first and foremost. People-first language uses identities and traits as adjectives, not nouns. For example, “ woman with cerebral palsy.”
Avoid referring to someone’s age, unless it’s relevant to what you’re writing about (for example, when referring to benefits that are available to people of certain ages).
Only refer to a person’s disability when necessary. Make sure the terms you use are accurate and specific. When in doubt about how to discuss disability, reach out to someone from the community you’re writing about.
When writing about those with disabilities, we use people-first language.
- Example: Children with Cerebral Palsy have benefited from the program.
We also make sure that any disability is correctly identified.
Example: The program serves over 3,000 individuals who are classified with a spectrum disorder.
NOT: The program serves over 3,000 autistic people.
There are often exceptions to the people-first approach. For example, many people with impaired vision or people with hearing impairment prefer disability-first language.
Hearing and Vision - exceptions to “people-first” language
Use the “deaf” to describe people with acute hearing loss. Use “partially deaf” or “hard of hearing” for people with moderate hearing loss.
Use “blind” to describe someone without vision. A person with some vision can be “legally blind” or have “low vision.”
For more information, refer to the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center Language Guide or the Diversity Style Guide.
Gender and sexuality
Use gender-neutral language whenever possible.
When referring to a hypothetical person, use the singular “they”. Do not use “he or she”.
Use “spouse” instead of “husband/wife”. Use “parent” instead of “mother/father”.
Use neutral titles whenever possible. For example, chairperson, firefighter, or police officer.
LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer)
Refer to the LGBTQ community as a single acronym. As with all abbreviations, write it out the first time and use the acronym after that.
Use the following as adjectives, but never as nouns:
It is acceptable, when applicable, to use the non-gendered pronoun, “they” as a singular.
For more information, contact the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs, or refer to the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association Style Guide or the GLAAD Media Reference Guide.
You can use “mental illness” as a general term, but do not refer to an individual as “mentally ill.” Use person-first language and, when possible, specific conditions.
- Example: The Center was created to assist those with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and severe depression.
Race, ethnicity, and religion
Don’t use “minority” on its own. Be specific. For example, “racial minority” or “linguistic minority”.
Don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do.
- Example: Use “about” instead of “approximately,” and so on.
Plainlanguage.gov is a good resource and offers tips for making sure your writing is clear to all audiences.
We lose our readers’ trust if we write using government buzzwords and jargon. Often, these words are too general and vague, and they can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text. We can do without the following words:
Agenda (unless you’re talking about a meeting)
Combating (use “working against” or “fighting”)
Commit/pledge (we need to be more specific — we’re either doing something or we’re not)
Deploy (unless you’re talking about the military or software)
Dialogue (we speak to people)
Disincentivize (and incentivize)
Foster (unless it’s children)
Illegals/illegal aliens (use “undocumented immigrants”)
Impact (as a verb)
Initiate (use “start” or “begin”)
Land (as a verb, unless you’re talking about aircraft)
Leverage (unless you use it in the financial sense)
Strengthening (unless you’re referring to bridges or other structures)
Tackling (unless you’re referring to football or another contact sport)
Thought leader (instead, refer to a person’s accomplishments)
Touchpoint (instead, mention specific system components)
User testing (unless you’re actually testing the users — otherwise, use “usability testing”)
Find alternatives to common redundant phrases below:
|for the purpose of||to|
|for the reason that||because|
|in excess of||more than|
|in order to||to|