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Rules for language

1. 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 the community care services.

Bad:

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

2. 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

3. 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 C or above, see 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.

4. Address people directly

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

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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’.

8. 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.

9. 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!

10. Use contractions – but not always

Use common contractions (don’t, can’t, we’ll) in most content. Don’t use unusual contractions (would’ve).
Do not use contractions in instructions or important information, such as health warnings. They are sometimes confusing.

Good:

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

11. Abbreviations and acronyms

The first time you use an abbreviation or acronym explain it in full on each page unless it’s well known, like UK, EU and GP.

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

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

eg, etc and ie: Avoid these specific abbreviations because they are misread by some screenreaders and not understood by some readers. Use ‘for example’, ‘like’, ‘that is’, ‘including’ or another appropriate phrase.

12. Capitalisation

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

Lowercase is preferable. Capitalise as little as you can. However, use capitalisation for:

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

Don’t capitalise:

  • medical card, GP visit card, or other normal nouns that are not proper names
  • names of jobs like general practitioner, doctor, unless in a specific job title (so, ‘See your deputy director of human resources’ is lower case; ‘See Susan Smith, Deputy Director of Human Resources’ is upper case)

13. Dates and times

Use this format for dates: 15 June 2012.

For times, use 8pm or 8.30am. Use ‘midnight’ not 12am and ‘midday’ not ‘12pm’ or ‘noon’.

In date and time ranges, use ‘to’ rather than a dash: Monday to Friday from 10am to 8pm.

If you write ‘today’ in a news article, add the date in brackets:

HSE announced today (12 May 2017) that…

5:30pm (not 1730hrs)

14. 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 always need to do more discovery. Find out why these important questions are not addressed elsewhere in the content.

15. Numbers

Use numerals for all numbers. Insert a comma in numerals over 999 (like 9,000).

Exceptions

  • Write ‘one’ unless using the numeral makes more sense
  • Write out numbers in common phrases where it would be odd to use a numeral (like ‘one or two people’)
  • If a number begins a sentence write it in full