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Rules for language

Use common words

Use everyday words. They are easy for people to understand. They make your content easier to find.

Good:

  • See your GP.
  • You can use all community care services.

Bad:

  • Visit a medical professional.
  • You are entitled to avail of a complete range of community care services.

Use short words

Choose the shorter word over the longer word. Don’t be afraid to use short words

Good:

  • Use
  • Buy
  • Help
  • About

Bad:

  • Utilise
  • Purchase
  • Assist
  • Approximately

Write short, clear sentences

Be clear. Get to the point – eliminate introductory words.

Use imperatives rather than suggestions.

Avoid adjectives and adverbs because they are hard to interpret and add unnecessary words. Be specific instead.

If a sentence gets to 25 words, break it into 2 sentences.

Good:

  • Do not use the new immunisation formula until 2019.
  • If you have a temperature of 39.7 degrees Celsius or above, talk to your GP.
  • Call an ambulance.

Bad:

  • The recently implemented formula for immunisations should not be applied before 2019.
  • If you have a raging fever, see your GP.
  • You should consider calling an ambulance.

Address people directly

Use personal pronouns – we, you, our, your. Check that it’s clear who ‘we’ is. If it’s not, explain.

Use the active voice, not the passive

Use the active voice. It’s easier to understand than the passive voice. It makes your content positive and direct.

Good:

  • We’ll send your medical card in the post.
  • Your doctor will explain your diagnosis to you.

Bad:

  • Your medical card will be sent to you in the post.
  • Your diagnosis will be explained to you by a medical professional.

Write positive sentences

Positive sentence construction is easier to read. Negative sentences can be frightening and doom-laden in health writing.

Good:

  • You need a password to sign in.
  • You should be back to normal in 7 days.

Bad:

  • You can’t sign in unless you have a password.
  • You won’t feel back to normal for up to 7 days.

Explain technical terms

Technical terms are not jargon. You must explain them the first time you use them. Check that the term is really necessary before you use it.

Good:

  • Check your child’s fontanelle (the soft spot on the top of their head.)
  • Surgeons usually remove tonsils with a surgical blade.

Bad:

  • Check the fontanelle.
  • Tonsils are usually removed using cold steel surgery (that means using a surgical blade.) 

*No need to use the term ‘cold steel surgery’.

Don’t use jargon

People don’t understand jargon. It’s vague and open to misinterpretation. It damages trust.

Good:

  • We pay the GPs, dentists, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals who give free or reduced-cost services to the public.

Bad:

  • We support the delivery of primary healthcare by providing reimbursement services to primary care contractors for the provision of health services to members of the public in their own community.

Don’t use marketing-speak

Unless it’s a campaign, don’t sell our services or persuade people. Just give accurate information. Don’t be clever – be clear.

Good:

  • Check your payslip online.

Bad:

  • Use HSE’s online payslip tool to see exactly how much you’ve earned this month, in black and white.
  • Why not try our online payslip checker? Get everything you need at the click of a button!

Use positive contractions 

Use common contractions (you’re, there’s you’ll, we’ll) in most content, except for negative contractions. 

Do not use unusual contractions (would’ve, should’ve, could've and they've).

Negative contractions

Do not use negative contractions (don’t, can’t, wouldn’t). 

Instead use ‘do not, cannot’ and ‘would not.’ 

Research shows that some people rely on reading the word ‘not’ to understand what is being said.  This is essential to them in understanding instructions or important information, such as health warnings. 

Good:

  • We’ll send you an email when your application is approved.
  • Do not give aspirin to a child who has chickenpox.

Cannot, can not

Use cannot, do not use can not.

Abbreviations and acronyms

Explain an abbreviation or acronym in full on its first use on a page. Then refer to it by initials.

Example: Each injury unit is linked to an emergency department (ED) in a hospital. EDs are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Don’t use an acronym if you’re not going to use it again later in the text.

You don’t need to explain an abbreviation or acronym if it's well known, like EU or GP.

Don’t use full stops in abbreviations: HSE, not H.S.E.

Latin abbreviations (eg, etc, ie)

Do not use abbreviations like eg, ie and etc because they are misread by some screenreaders and not understood by some readers.

Use ‘for example’, ‘like’, ‘that is’, ‘including’ or another appropriate phrase.

Capitalisation

DON’T USE BLOCK CAPITALS FOR LARGE AMOUNTS OF TEXT AS IT’S QUITE HARD TO READ.

We always use lower case, including page titles. Capitalise as little as you can. 

But do use capitalisation for:

  • job titles when the person who holds this title is named
  • titles like Mr, Mrs, Dr (no full stops)
  • place names
  • brand names
  • departments, institutes and schools 
  • names of groups, divisions, directorates, and organisations
  • titles of publications (and within single quotes), for example, ‘The Medical Card Handbook’
  • schemes and programmes such as the Bike to Work Scheme

Examples:

  • If you are no longer eligible for a medical card, we will assess you for a GP visit card.
  • See if you are eligible for the Medical Card Scheme.

Only capitalise when referring to a specific department. 

Examples:

  • Please come to the Mater X-ray Department for your x-ray
  • Contact your local garda station
  • Contact Tallaght Garda Station 

Do not capitalise:

names of jobs like public health nurse, doctor, unless in a specific job title

Examples:

  • See your deputy director of human resources
  • See Susan Smith, Deputy Director of Human Resources

Medical conditions

Conditions are lowercase except where they are named after a person.

Examples:

  • motor neurone disease
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • asthma

Medicines

Generic drug names start lowercase. Brand names get an initial capital letter, except where the brand uses lowercase itself. Try to avoid using brand names unless it helps users to recognise a class of medicine. 

Examples:

Codeine comes mixed with paracetamol (co-codamol) or with aspirin (co-codaprin) or with ibuprofen (Nurofen Plus).

Numbers, measurements, dates and time

Numbers

Numerals (1, 2, 3 and so on)

We use numerals for all numbers (including 1 to 2). People find numerals easier to read and they scan for them. For numbers over 999, use a comma for clarity - for example, 1,000.

For numbers less than 1, use 0 before the decimal point - for example, 0.25.

Exceptions

  • Use the numeral unless writing out the number makes more sense. 
  • Write out numbers in common phrases where it would be odd to use a numeral (like ‘one or two people’ or ‘one in a million’).

Examples of where we use numerals:

  • Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey.
  • It takes 1 to 3 weeks from the time you were exposed to chickenpox for the spots to start appearing.
  • Do this for 1 or 2 minutes.
  • Depression affects about 1 in 10 people at some point during their life.

At the start of a sentence

It is okay to use numbers at the start of a sentence but, if it looks confusing, consider writing out the number or rewording your sentence.

Example: 12 units is equivalent to 6 pints of average-strength beer. 

In headings

Examples:

  • 8 tips for healthy eating
  • 6-in-1 vaccine

In lists

Example: 

A portion is:

  • 80g of fresh, canned or frozen fruit and vegetables
  • 30g of dried fruit
  • 150ml glass of fruit juice or smoothie

Ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on)

We use numerals with letter suffixes for ordinal numbers, for example, "1st", as in "your 1st visit".

Do not use superscript. It does not always read out correctly on screen readers and could confuse people. This rule does not apply to dates.

Fractions and percentages

Spell out common fractions like two-thirds.

For percentages, use the % symbol - for example, 50%. However, it's often better not to use a percentage. Instead of 50%, for example, you could say "1 in 2" or "half".

Do not mix fractions and percentages in one article, use one or the other.

Statistics

Use statistics sparingly. Consider the style of writing and your target audience.

Use the clearest, most meaningful format to explain what you're illustrating. For example, use "1 in 7 people" rather than "14.3% of people".

Avoid mixing different number formats. Use one or the other.

Example: Overall, around 7 in every 10 people live at least a year after diagnosis and around 5 in 10 people live at least 10 years.

Measurements

Dosage

We do not use a space between amount and measurement.

Example: The usual dose is 250mg to 500mg.

Use your judgement when explaining medicines doses. Avoid having 2 sets of numerals next to each other.

Good:

The usual dose is one or two 200mg tablets 3 times a day.

Bad:

The usual dose is 1 or 2 200mg tablets 3 times a day.

Temperature

We use Celsius for temperature.

Example: a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius or higher.

Metric and imperial

We generally use metric. If it's helpful, add imperial in brackets, for example, for advice on cutting back on alcohol.

Do not use imperial for medicines dosage or infant feeding.

Dates

We use this format: 6 August 2018.

Spell out months in full. Screen readers read out shortened months (Jan, Feb and so on) in inconsistent and sometimes confusing ways.

If you write ‘today’ in a news article, add the date in brackets: HSE announced today (12 May 2017) that…

Good:

  • 5.30pm
  • Midnight
  • Midday
  • 6 hours 30 minutes

Bad:

  • 1730hrs
  • 00:00, 12am
  • 12noon, 12pm
  • 6.5hrs

FAQs

Don’t use FAQs. Write content that answers people’s questions.

FAQs are bad practice because they:

  • duplicate other content on the site
  • are often a dumping ground for important information
  • mean that content is not where people expect to find it – it needs to be in context
  • can add to search results with duplicate, competing text

If you think that you need to create a FAQ page, you need to do more discovery. Find out why these important questions are not addressed elsewhere in the content.

Colons

Do not use colons for page titles, use a hyphen instead.

Example for a page title: Epilepsy - symptoms

Hyphens and dashes

Use hyphens, not em or en dashes. 

Em and en dashes look similar to hyphens but they are different lengths. 

  • Em dash (—) 
  • En dash (–) 
  • Hyphen (-) 

Make sure to place a space before and after use of a hyphen except when using a hyphen to join words. For example, over-the-counter medicines.

Do not use hyphens to indicate a pause. Instead use a comma, or write shorter sentences. People with poor literacy can find hyphens and dashes confusing. Screenreaders also read them out in different ways so they can cause accessibility issues.

Dates and times

When writing dates and times, use ‘to’ instead of a hyphen.

Examples:

  • The clinic is open from 9am to 4pm. 
  • This vaccine is suitable for children aged 4 to 8.

Read more about dates and times.

Commas

Use commas to indicate a pause but do not include too many commas in one sentence as this will be difficult to read.

Comma after but 

We use the word ‘but’ instead of ‘however’ because it is easier to understand. Do not add a comma after ‘but’ if ‘but’ is the start of a sentence.

Example:

There is no cure for motor neurone disease. But there are treatments to help reduce the impact it has on your daily life.

Quotation marks

We generally use double quotes:

  • when quoting another source
  • for unusual or colloquial terms, for example: Diuretics are sometimes called "water pills" because they make you pee more.

Don't overdo quotation marks though. They can be distracting and are often unnecessary.

Use single quotes for:

  • quotes within quotes, for example: "'Helicopter parenting' linked to behavioural problems in children," reports The Independent.
  • headlines
  • captions
  • large-type quotes