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NC Department of Health and Human Services
Office of Public Affairs

Website Style Guide:
Appendix: A-Z Style Topics

A and An

Use a before any acronym or word that begins with a consonant sound. Use an before any acronym or word that begins with a vowel sound. An acronym is pronounced as a word (for example, WIC); an initialism is pronounced as its letters (for example, NCRX). The first sound of the word or letters indicates whether to use a or an.


  • a North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services service
  • an NC DHHS service

Abbreviations and Acronyms

To avoid confusion, spell out an abbreviation or acronym in full or define it the first time you use it in the main body of the text.

When you first use them, spell out the names of offices and programs, followed by the abbreviation in parentheses:

Use a small s (no apostrophe) for plurals of most abbreviations (for example, ADATCs not ADATC’s). For plurals of units of measurement, omit the s (e.g., 15 cm, 5.5 MB, 125 KB).

Sometimes, there is no need to use the acronym or abbreviation. In short reports, spell out acronyms that are used fewer than five times. In long reports, spell out acronyms that are used fewer than 10 times. If acronyms are used, spell them out on first use, and put the acronym in parentheses after the full name.

Addresses/State Abbreviations

Use U.S. Postal Service abbreviations (such as CO for Colorado and DC for District of Columbia) for states in bibliographies, references, and full addresses (those that include streets or post office boxes):


2001 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-2001

In text, states are generally spelled out (North Carolina). When part of a name or an abbreviated list, presented with the AP Style abbreviation. For North Carolina, that is N.C.


N.C. Department of Health and Human Services


Affect and Effect

Affect is usually a verb and effect is usually a noun.

Affect (verb): The new process affected the efficiency of the workgroup.

Effect (noun): We measured the effect of the new process on the efficiency of the device.

These words can be confusing, because affect can sometimes be a noun (when it denotes an emotion), and effect can be a verb (when it means "to bring about").


Use apostrophes to indicate possession or to denote missing letters or numbers in contraction or dates.

Assure, Ensure and Insure

Assure means to guarantee. Ensure means to make certain. Insure means to obtain insurance.


  • The manufacturer assured the group the equipment would work properly.
  • Ensure the lid is fitted properly before starting the experiment.
  • The laboratory must insure the new equipment before it can be used.


Because and Since

Because indicates a cause-and-effect relationship. Since indicates a time relationship.


  • Because the equipment malfunctioned, the experiment failed.
  • Since we began using the new procedures, there have been no more malfunctions.


There must be at least two items in a bulleted list.

Make bulleted lists parallel in construction (that is, begin all the items in the list with the same part of speech.)

Make sure items are either all phrases or all complete sentences.

Punctuate all items consistently.

Begin each item with a capital letter; omit ending punctuation for all but the last item, unless all items are complete sentences.

Chronological lists should be ordered with the most recent item first; that is, in reverse chronological order.

Use numbered or lettered lists instead of bullets if you want to refer to items in a list or procedure elsewhere in the text.



Capitalize proper nouns. Do not capitalize a noun when it does not appear as a proper noun, even if it is referring to a proper noun.


  • The Department of Health and Human Services
  • The department

Capitalizing Titles, Headings, and Captions

Capitalize the main words of titles, headings and subheadings, including the second word in a hyphenated term (e.g., Five-Year Plan). Capitalize the labels in navigation. However, do not capitalize articles (a, an, and the), conjunctions (and, or, nor, and but), or prepositions (e.g., for, of, and to) unless they begin the title or heading.  When “to” is used in a title or heading, it is capitalized as an infinitive and lowercase as a preposition.

Do not capitalize bulleted lists within text.




  • Methods To Detect Rabies
  • Government Response to Rabies

Capitalizing States

 Capitalize the names of states, but capitalize the word “state” only when it appears as part of an official state name:


  • The State of North Carolina …
  • The state regulator issued a warning.

Capitalizing Position Titles

Capitalize position titles when they precede the person's name. Use lowercase titles and names of groups when they follow the name:


  • State Health Director Jane Doe
  • Mike Jones, the secretary of the department


All substantive photos should be accompanied by a caption. Begin figure and photo captions with a capitalized word and use lowercase thereafter, except for proper nouns and capitalized abbreviations. Unless you add a sub-caption, you don't need a period at the end of a caption.


Colons formally introduce a list or series, a question, or an amplification.


The program serves three populations: pregnant women, infants and toddlers.

However, commas, not colons, should follow words such as that is, namely, or such as. You don't need a colon after a verb or preposition that precedes or introduces a list (includes, to, with, between, etc.). Use a colon when a noun introduces a list in text.


Do not add a comma before "and."

Compose and Comprise

Composed of is correct; comprised of is incorrect.


  • The United States is composed of 50 states.
  • The parts constitute the whole.
  • The whole comprises its parts.
  • The department comprises four groups; each group is composed of five to seven scientists, technicians, and support staff.

Compound Words, Modifiers, and Hyphens

Verb Phrases: Verb, Noun, and Adjective Forms

Verb phrases that contain an adverb (build up, set up, start up, break down) are usually written as two words. The noun and adjective forms of these words are either one word (no hyphen) or a hyphenated form of the words. However, there are exceptions. Refer to the dictionary for the correct spelling.


  • We helped with the setup.
  • The start-up costs were higher than we estimated.
  • I think I'm having another breakdown.

Compound Words Containing Prefixes and Suffixes

You don't need a hyphen between many prefixes and suffixes and the root words, unless the root word is a proper noun:


  • retroactive
  • nonspecialist
  • multiyear
  • prescreening

These prefixes usually require a hyphen: ex -, self -, quasi -.

Unit Modifiers with and without Hyphens

Use a hyphen to indicate that words have been combined into a unit modifier, which is a descriptive expression composed of two or more words that form one new meaning. Although there is a tendency in modern writing to eliminate hyphens, they help prevent ambiguity and confusion. Here are some examples of unit modifiers that usually include hyphens:


  • last-minute addition
  • band-gap energies
  • fatigue-induced wear
  • five-year plan
  • nine-story building.

To see how adding the hyphen can prevent confusion, consider these examples:


  • The scientists tested a new defect causing gas.
  • The scientists tested a new defect-causing gas.

In the first example, the scientists might seem to have been testing a defect; in the second example, it's clear that they have tested a gas.

You don't need a hyphen in common unit modifiers that are not ambiguous or confusing.


  • high school students
  • solar radiation resource
  • solar thermal electric systems

Do not use a hyphen when both words of a unit modifier are capitalized:


  • Bronze Age tools
  • Vietnam Era veterans
  • Biofuels Program objectives

Leave out the hyphens if you rewrite a sentence so the words in the unit modifier come after the noun they describe.


  • We purchased state-of-the-art lab equipment.
  • We purchased lab equipment that reflects the state of the art.
  • They made some last-minute adjustments.
  • They made some adjustments at the last minute.

Do not use a hyphen with a unit modifier containing an adverb ending in ly:


  • frequently missed deadlines
  • heavily skewed results

Use a hyphen between prefixes and proper nouns (but not common nouns) or dates, whether they're used as nouns or modifiers:


  • non-DHHS
  • mid-1990s

Use two hyphens when adding a prefix to a word that already contains a prefix, even when there is no hyphen after the prefix in the original word:


  • non-self-limiting
  • multiple-band-gap


Dashes and Hyphens

Use dashes (often called long dashes or em dashes) to enclose and set off parenthetical (nonessential but often illustrative) information in a sentence. Also use dashes to set off a list of items separated by commas. Do not add spaces around the dash.


NCDHHS provides for the human service needs for fragile populations— the mentally ill, deaf, blind and developmentally disabled.

Use an em dash to signal that an important point is going to be made or that a change in the construction of the sentence follows.


  • The presentation concluded with a discussion of the two project factors that concern contractors the most—cost and time.
  • The major omission in the project assessment was the delay caused by the circuit failures—everyone knew about it but no one mentioned it to the reviewers.

You can usually use commas, colons, and semicolons in place of dashes, but dashes add special emphasis.

Use shorter dashes known as en dashes to indicate a range or to substitute for the word “to.” However, on the web, a hyphen is an appropriate substitute for an en dash.


  • 2–5 times per day
  • See sections 3.1–3.6.

Do not use an en dash or hyphen to mean and; the word “between” should be used cautiously and followed by the word "and" (not "to"). When expressing a range of numbers, keep in in mind that a number that is "between 25 and 30" excludes the extremes. That is, it is limited to 26 to 29. If you wish to express a range of numbers inclusively, then say, "The participantes ranged in age from 25 to 30."

Use hyphens when joining two words together, as in the case of a compound adjective. Hyphens can also be used when two adjectives precede a noun.


  • A smoke-free restaurant

A hyphen can also show that two compounds share a single base, as in the case of “six- and seven-year-olds.” Hyphens are also used as a substitution for the word “to” in between some numbers or words: “Pages 12-24.” Hyphens should also be used in written-out compound numbers: “Thirty-five.”

Data in Tables

Place a zero to the left of the decimal in any number less than 1 in text and tables (e.g., 0.5, 0.039). Align columns of data vertically on the decimals. When the units of measurement for the data are different, alignment is not necessary (but be sure to specify the units).


Spell out the months when a full date is provided. Use cardinal numbers for the day.


  • January 1, 2010
  • May 6, 1990


Express thousands of dollars using a comma.



Express millions and billions of dollars this way:


  • $3 million
  • $1.2 billion



Emphasis should be used rarely in all writing.

Use bold text to emphasize something. Never use capitalization for this purpose. Only use capitalization to start a sentence or when indicating a proper noun or pronoun. Italics are appropriate for emphasis in the printed word, but bold is preferable on the web.

Italics are rarely used on the web, except in a document such as this. Use italics to to set off a word.

Never underline text for any purpose, or site visitors may mistake the text for a link.


Because it is vague, use etc. (et cetera) sparingly. Don't add it to the end of a list beginning with "for example," or the abbreviation e.g., because each word in your list is an example of your subject or topic, but "etc." is not, so you don't need it.



Use words instead of numerals for simple fractions in text.


  • a third of the way
  • one-fifth its actual size
  • three-fourths of the participants

Write out complex fractions with numerals separated by a forward-slash.


  • 1/64
  • 23/32
  • 5-1/2 days afterward
  • 2-1/2 times greater


Geographic Regions

Capitalize regions of the United States when they appear by themselves.


  • the East, the West, the North, and the South
  • the Southeast, the Northeast, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest
  • the Midwest, the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast

Don't capitalize words that merely describe general areas in the country or areas of a state.


  • the eastern United States
  • southwestern Nebraska
  • northern New Mexico
  • the Midwestern states



All headings should be clear and brief, and convey the content accurately. Include key words for which a user would likely search. This will make it easier for visitors to find what they seek.

When linking to a page, make sure that the heading is the same as the link which brought the user to the page, or close enough so there is no confusion.

All headings should appear exactly as they do in the navigation bar.


Refer to Dashes and Hyphens


It's and Its

Even though it's has an apostrophe, it isn't a possessive pronoun. It's is a contraction, a short form of two words, like isn't. It's always means it is. Its is the possessive form of it. Like his, hers, and ours, the possessive its never needs an apostrophe.


It's a shame that the department lost its funding.



The plural of memorandum can be either memoranda or memorandums.

Misplaced Modifiers

Modifiers in the wrong place can make a sentence confusing.


  After helping the client, the application took about five minutes.

This example literally says the application helped the client. This might be better: “After helping the client, the case worker finished the application in five minutes.”

Watch out for modifiers that often get misplaced, especially only, just, nearly, barely, and almost. These words modify what they are near.


These three sentences have different meanings: “I lost my only shirt” means that I had but one to begin with. “I lost only my shirt” means I didn’t lose anything else. “Only I lost my shirt” means that I was the only person in my group to lose a shirt.

Months and Years

Spell out the names of months in text. In tables, when an exact date is given, use the mm-dd-yy format. In application websites, or in any form, use the mm-dd-yyyy format.


  • In September of 2008, the budget is expected to be very tight.
  • Table: 09-03-08
  • Form: 09-03-2008


Nonrestrictive Phrases and Clauses

A nonrestrictive phrase or clause is one that adds information but is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.


The professor, who has studied child abuse for 10 years, will chair the panel discussion.

Nonrestrictive or nonessential phrases and clauses are enclosed between two commas when the phrase or clause is within a sentence, and they usually begin with the pronoun which rather than that.


Units of Measurement and Mathematical Expressions

Use numerals with units of measurement and time.


  • 2-1/2 hours
  • 4.5 months
  • 36 cm
  • 87 years
  • 6 liters
  • 25 kW

With units of time, you can spell out numbers less than 10 if you do so consistently (this applies mainly to outreach products rather than technical reports and papers).


  • five-year plan
  • two-hour test
  • three-week turnaround

Fractions and Decimals

You can spell out and hyphenate simple fractions (this is preferred in text) or express them, like more complex fractions, in numerals with a solidus.


  • one-fifth or 1/5
  • 1/64 (but not 1/64th)

Use a hyphen to separate the integral and fractional parts of a mixed number, or convert the fraction to a decimal.


  • 2-1/2 cm in diameter
  • 2.5-cm-diameter solar cell

For numbers of 1 million or more, use the numeral (and a decimal, if necessary) and the words million, billion, etc.


  • 2 million households
  • $2.5 million in funding

Punctuating Numbers

Use a comma to separate groups of three digits in numbers.


  • 5,182
  • 113,728
  • 2,225,000

Spelling Out Numbers

Except with units of measurement and time, spell out numbers less than 10.


  • eight experiments
  • three species of snake

Spell out all numbers that start a sentence.


  • Fifteen trials later, the results were the same.
  • Thirty-five participants attended the seminar.

When a sentence contains one or more numbers greater than nine that are related to a smaller number, use numerals for all of them.


  • The results were the same in 3, 12, and 18 trials.
  • The contractor tested 8 devices in May, 12 in June, and 9 in July.


Over and Under

In cases involving quantity, use more than rather than over and fewer than or less than rather than under.


More than 500 people attended the conference, about 100 fewer than last year.



Use parallel construction in sentences as well as in lists. Express all similar sentence elements (subjects, verbs, objects) in a similar way.

Example: Not Parallel Structure:

It is the department’s responsibility to ensure the health, safety and well being of all North Carolinians, provide human service needs for fragile populations like the mentally ill, deaf, blind and developmentally disabled, and helping poor North Carolinians achieve economic independence.

Example: Parallel Structure:

It is the NCDHHS’ responsibility to ensure the health, safety and well being of all North Carolinians, provide human service needs for fragile populations like the mentally ill, deaf, blind and developmentally disabled, and to help poor North Carolinians achieve economic independence.


Use parentheses as appropriate for explanatory material in text, and as shown in the examples that follow.

Use parentheses to enclose material that is not essential to a sentence and would not change the meaning of the sentence if it were removed. Also use parenthesis when defining unfamiliar abbreviations for the first time. : “Division of Medical Assistance” (DMA)

Person and People

The plural of “person” is “people.” Never write “persons.”

Personal Pronouns

Content may use the first person when speaking of the department (we or us) and use of the second person when referring to the reader, when it is appropriate and not awkward to do so.


Find out how DHHS can serve you. We protect health, foster self-reliance and protect the vulnerable in numerous ways.

To apply for food stamps, go to your county Department of Social Services.

Principal and Principle

Principal often means chief or main, such as the principal investigator in a research project or the principal of a high school. Principle often refers to a belief, value, or rule.



Use double quotation marks to enclose direct quotations, words or phrases to help clarify their meaning, enclose the translation of a foreign word or the titles of series of books, articles or chapters in published works, essays, short stories and poems, individual television and radio programs, and songs and short musical pieces. Use single quotation marks to set off quotations that appear within quotations.



Use semicolons to separate clauses of a compound sentence when the sentence has no conjunction to separate the clauses.


Use only one space between a period and the beginning of the next sentence.


In text, consistently spell out states' names rather than using U.S. Postal Service abbreviations.


In North Carolina, employment options for people with disabilities are diverse. (Not “In NC”)

In headings and in names of organizations, abbreviate states with periods.


N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, (not NC Department of Health and Human Services)


Telephone Numbers

Use hyphens to separate the 10 digits in phone numbers. When denoting a toll-free number, include the “1”:





Use lowercase a.m. and p.m. (with periods) to denote ante meridiem and post meridiem (before and after noon); use a lowercase s (no apostrophe) to show the plural of a decade expressed with numerals (the 1990s).



Uniform resource locators, or URLs, are essentially web addresses.  URLs should be embedded in text.


More information is available from The Division Of Public Health.

In print, URLs should not be embedded in text. If a URL extends beyond one line of text, add a break at a forward-slash.



The word very is very unnecessary. Don’t use it. Ever.

Website and Web

Website should be written as one word, while web page should be written as two. Do not capitalize web, website or web page. (But be aware that print documents in DHHS follow the AP Style Guide, which does require capitalization of the word web.)

When publishing a  website address, omit the “http://”  when “www.” is part of the address. Also omit “home.htm” or “index.htm” whenever possible.



Which and That

Standard American English uses which for nonrestrictive or nondefining phrases and clauses and that for restrictive or defining phrases and clauses. The word which usually signals the approach of added, nonessential information. When a phrase or clause is not essential to the meaning of a sentence, use the relative pronoun which and enclose the phrase or clause in commas.


This paper, which she has been working on for three weeks, discusses string theory.

When a phrase or clause is essential to the meaning of a sentence (that is, the sentence would not make much sense without it), use the relative pronoun that and leave out the commas.


The paper that he completed recently will be presented in New York; the paper that he finished last summer will be presented in Philadelphia.


For numbers less than one, place a zero before the decimal.


  • 0.5
  • 0.125
  • 0.00125

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