Skip to main content

You are here

Writing Style

Writing for the Web follows the Department's style, which is based on the AP Stylebook. Please consult this resource if you have questions.
HHS Exceptions from AP style

HHS Exceptions from AP style

Abbreviations for States – Use Postal Service style, rather than AP style. Example: MS, MO, MN and MI, not Miss., Mo., Minn. and Mich.
Academic Degrees –It is AP style to use "Dr." before a name when the person holds a medical degree. HHS style will be John Jones, M.D., although Dr. Jones would be an acceptable second reference. HHS has many people whose doctorates are important in their jobs but which are in other areas than medicine, such as a Ph.D. We use these identifiers when relevant, but we do not refer to people with Ph.D. s as "Dr.," though on first reference "Sam Smith, Ph.D." is acceptable. Second reference could be to Dr. Jones or simply to Jones, but it should be consistent. See also "Academic Degrees and Professional Affiliations."
Acting (as a job title) –The AP does not capitalize "acting" as a job title. However, Acting is a term of law when applied to a person holding an HHS position, because an acting holder of a position can have different levels of responsibility than a permanent appointee.
Acting should be capitalized as part of a formal title if a person is officially named to that job. Example: Acting FDA Commissioner John Jones. Similarly, if a person is not officially named as acting holder of a position, avoid even lower case use.
If the title follows the name, however, use lower case, as proper grammar. Example: John Jones, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
Agency Names and Use of the Word "The" –Use "the" before the agency name (the Office of the Inspector General) if the agency commonly is known by that usage.
As for the abbreviations, it would be up to the agency to decide if the public would refer to the agency commonly by its initials and know what that means, and the name is being used as a noun (the FDA announced.) AP copy commonly uses "the" before FDA. That's not the case for agencies less well-known, such as AHRQ.
AIDS –HHS uses HIV/AIDS, as more exact than simply AIDS, when we mean the infectious disease in general. We use HIV when talking about the virus or the pre-AIDS stage. We would not use human immunodeficiency virus alone because more people would recognize it by its acronym. If the disease has advanced to the level at which it is clinically defined as AIDS, we would say that. See for examples of how the terms are used at HHS.
Avian Flu-Swine Flu-Pandemic Flu (Or Influenza) – Because the AP Stylebook does not cover this, here is the correct use of terms
Terms Defined

  • Seasonal (or common) flu is a respiratory illness that can be transmitted person to person. Most people have some immunity, and a vaccine is available.
  • Avian (or bird) flu is caused by influenza viruses that occur naturally among wild birds. The H5N1 variant is deadly to domestic fowl and can be transmitted from birds to humans. There is no human immunity and no vaccine is available.
  • Swine Flu is caused by influenza viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia, plus avian and human genes. The H1N1 flu virus caused the 2009-2010 Pandemic. HHS uses the term only as a parenthetical to "H1N1" flu, or to identify it as "commonly known as ‘swine flu'."
  • Pandemic flu is virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness. Because there is little natural immunity, the disease can spread easily from person to person.

Comma –Unlike AP, we use the serial comma. This means we place a comma before "and" in a series: "To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God," not "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God." As the example shows, omitting the serial comma can create ambiguity. This lack of clarity also has created legal problems for the government, which is why federal agencies are asked strongly to use the comma. In addition, the serial comma improves scannability, making clear to users how many items are in a series.
Commissioned Corps –We can refer in upper case to the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, or say a person is an officer in the Commissioned Corps (provided we already identified the Commissioned Corps as part of the U.S. Public Health Service).
Datelines –In general, we don't need them in news releases because the letterhead or Web page provides location identification. When we use datelines, they should reflect where the news comes from. If the news is at an event in Chicago and the agency is in Washington, the dateline city is Chicago. If the announcement comes from Washington about an event to take place in Chicago, the dateline city is Washington. When the release is a roundup – for instance, a multicenter study in which the news comes from several areas and the writer or the agency was not in any of those places – we would not use a dateline. This would be similar to AP style for roundups.
Headlines (news releases, fact sheets, and reports) – All words in headlines are in bold, upper and lower, Times New Roman. Italics are not used for headlines or subheads. Headings must use H1 and subheads H2 styles.
HHS – The official acronym, replacing DHHS.
Percent – For Web content, use the % sign.
SARS – Acceptable in all references for severe acute respiratory syndrome, but it should be spelled out somewhere in the text.

This page last updated on May 17, 2017
Technical Issues: E-mail OER Webmaster