Citizens Advice style guide
If you write to inform or influence using tools such as a newsletter, web page, report or poster then this guide is for you. It sets out:
our approach to writing
our style when there’s more than one correct way of doing something
words to use and ones to avoid
We write in plain English. This means using everyday words, keeping your sentences short and your language 'active'.
Use everyday language
Write 'use' not 'utilise'. 'Help' not 'facilitate'. 'Ask' not 'enquire'. There's a list of words to avoid and alternatives to use in the 'using plain English' section.
Be clear and concise
Keep words, sentences and paragraphs short. If your sentences are longer than 25 words, try to break them up.
Write active sentences
In an active sentence, the noun (the person or thing) comes before the verb ('doing' word). So "Citizens Advice provides free, independent advice" is active. But "Free and independent advice is provided by Citizens Advice" is passive.
Keep who you are writing for in mind
Use words that your audience will understand. You may need to use specialist words in a policy report that you wouldn't use on our website advice pages. But don't use a complicated word if a simple one works just as well.
Make every word count
Just because you have more space in a report than on Twitter doesn't mean you should use 3 words when 1 will do. Make every word count.
Use our tone of voice
Our tone of voice is straightforward, friendly and positive.
What we do
Below is the single description we use when speaking to all of our audiences about what the Citizens Advice service does. It is often used on the back of reports and leaflets, as well as in the notes to editors of our press releases and on the website.
Citizens Advice helps people find a way forward.
We provide free, confidential and independent advice to help people overcome their problems. We are a voice for our clients and consumers on the issues that matter to them.
We value diversity, champion equality and challenge discrimination. We're here for everyone.
*For policy and research work, it may be more appropriate to replace ‘We are a voice for clients and consumers‘ with ‘We advocate for our clients and consumers’.
There's a longer description on our 'About us' page.
Description with numbers
The description below includes our numbers for 2016-17. Only use these in places that you update regularly otherwise the information will soon be out of date. We’ll update this section again in April 2018.
Citizens Advice provides free, confidential and independent advice to help people overcome their problems.
Last year we helped over 2.7 million people face to face, by phone, email or webchat. We provide support in 2,700 locations in England and Wales and people visited our online advice pages 43 million times.
We are a voice for millions of people on the issues that matter to them.
Our service in numbers
Use these sentences to describe what the whole service does in numbers.
Last year, we helped 2.7 million people face to face, by phone, email or web chat.
People sought our help with 6.3 million issues in the last year.
We provide support in 2,700 locations across England and Wales.
People visit our website 43 million times a year to get advice.
23,000 people volunteer for Citizens Advice.
(These figures are from the tax year 2016 to 2017)
Different parts of the service
'Citizens Advice' informally covers the national charity and a network of independent local charities.
Treat Citizens Advice as a singular noun. So say 'Citizens Advice is launching a campaign' not 'Citizens Advice are launching a campaign'.
When you want to describe different parts of the service try using one of these: we, us, Citizens Advice, nationally, our network, local Citizens Advice, local service(s), local charity(ies), locally.
Please don’t use the abbreviations ‘CitA’, ‘CA’ and ‘LCA’ because many people won’t know what they mean.
We've created some examples of how to use our new name.
|do use||don't use|
|Citizens Advice, we, us||CAB, Cita, CA|
|local Citizens Advice||bureau(x), LCA, Local Citizens Advices|
|local Citizens Advice (when you mean
the network of charities as a whole)
local Citizens Advice
a local Citizens Advice service
a local Citizens Advice (when you mean
Citizens Advice (location)
Example: Citizens Advice Gateshead
(location) Citizens Advice
Example: Gateshead Citizens Advice
The Citizens Advice Witness Service provides free, independent support for witnesses in criminal courts in England and Wales. Our trained volunteers provide practical and emotional support and information to defence and prosecution witnesses.
Use Citizens Advice Witness Service the first time and then Witness Service.
Pension Wise is a free and impartial guidance service which helps people to understand their pension options. Pension Wise offers face-to-face or telephone appointments to anyone over 50 with a defined contribution pension.
Staff at Pension Wise are 'guiders' not 'advisers' and they give guidance not advice.
The Citizens Advice consumer service helps people understand their legal rights and gives them practical advice if they have a problem with a good or service they’ve bought.
We work closely with Trading Standards and other trusted partners, providing information that allows them to protect consumers against bad practice and help to resolve disputes between consumers and companies.
We often call people who use our services our 'clients'. This helps to explain how we act as advocates. But alternatives such as 'people we support', 'people we help' or 'people who use our service' can also be effective.
If you have interviewed someone it is generally more effective to write the case study in first person. For example, "I walked in and the room was covered in mould'.
When using case studies write the person's name eg 'Tom's story' (even if it's a false name). Or use a relevant description eg 'a care worker who sought our advice', or 'a British Gas customer'. Don't use 'client story' or 'case study'.
How to describe people
|do use||don't use|
|older people||elderly, the elderly|
In our approach to disability we use the 'social model'
people with disabilities
|people with learning difficulties||people with learning disabilities|
|people with mental health problems or a mental health condition||the mentally ill, mental illness|
|a person who takes their own life||commit suicide|
deaf or hearing impaired
a Deaf person
We explain this in 'Finding the right words to use'
blind people, blind and partly sighted people
people who are visually impaired
Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people
black people, white people
African and African Caribbean
|ethnic people, ethnic communities|
|Gypsies and Travellers||gypsies and travellers (without capital 'G' and 'T')|
lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT) people and communities
homosexual, gay women or gay people
See the equality strategy team's more detailed advice.
When writing about our volunteers use language like 'involving' or 'engaging' rather than 'using' or 'employing' volunteers. 'Using' volunteers suggests we don't value them and 'employing' volunteers implies they are paid staff.
For example: 'Involving young volunteers helps us to respond to the needs of our local community'.
Where appropriate, refer to a volunteer by role (eg 'adviser') rather than by their status as a volunteer.
Princess Anne is our patron (or 'Royal Patron')
At first use HRH The Princess Royal, not Princess Anne, HRH or Princess Royal. Once HRH The Princess Royal has been used once in text, you can then use Her Royal Highness or The Princess Royal.
Our teams and job titles
Use capitals to distinguish job titles. For example, Gillian Guy, Chief Executive.
Use lowercase when talking about a job title in general. For example, 'we hold network meetings for our advisers’.
Use lowercase to describe teams. For example, communications team.
Use digits ('9' not 'nine'). If a sentence starts with a number, then write it out as a word. Write million or billion as a word. For example, '1 million people'.
Use a comma when writing numbers over 1,000 like this: 20,000.
If you are writing ‘one’ as part of a sentence and a digit looks strange to you, use a word. For example, ‘one of the best reasons’ or ‘the next one we looked at was’.
Write ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘third’ (and so on) as words rather than 1st, 2nd 3rd.
Use % rather than 'per cent'. Note: percentage is one word.
If you are writing simple fractions like ‘three-quarters’ or ‘two thirds’ write the number as a word. So don’t use ‘3-quarters’ or ‘⅔’
Explain percentages so they can be understood more easily, like this:
'Half of people (52%) we spoke to told us they had difficulty understanding percentages' or '7 out of 10 people (73%) think a change is needed'.
Financial and tax years
Write financial years (all our statistics are in financial or fiscal years) as 2015-16.
When writing about tax years say ‘the tax year 2015 to 2016’ (or ‘2015-16’ if there isn’t space).
Don't use a space in abbreviated measurements - write 3,500kg, not 3,500 kg.
Use these formats:
03000 231 231
07771 900 900
0800 890 567
020 7450 4000
You can make an exception if the number was clearly chosen because it's easier to remember in a different format, such as 03454 04 05 06.
Use the 12 hour clock. Write '2pm to 3.30pm'. Don't use a hyphen or colon like this: 2:00-2:30pm. Write 'midday' or 'midnight' not '12pm'.
Write 'Monday 7 March 2016'. Only use the day where necessary. Only abbreviate if there is no room. For example, '7 Mar 2016'.
Use 'tax year 2015 to 2016'.
Headings and subheadings
Use sentence case without a full stop. Sentence case looks like this: 'Our conversation'.
Keep them short. Try not to go onto a second line. Try to use keywords at the beginning.
Use subheadings to break up large amounts of text. They let the reader scan a page quickly and pick out any areas of interest.
Our 'speech bubbles' can be used in posters and reports. Our design guidelines tell you how to use them.
If you're using one, write anything inside the bubble in the first person For example, 'Citizens Advice helped me get back on track' not 'special report'.
Don't use speech marks within the speech bubble. Try to keep quotes short.
Our campaign titles are written in sentence case. For example, Talk about abuse
In text, use single quote marks to distinguish a campaign title. For example our 'Settled and safe' campaign is calling for better rights for private renters.,
Or use the content of campaign title in a more natural way to explain what your campaign is trying to achieve. For example, 'our campaign is encouraging more of us to talk about abuse'.
When using a link in digital content, describe what you are linking to rather than writing 'click here' or 'read more'.
Do write 'our report on subscription traps found terms and conditions are not clearly and displayed'
Don't write 'our report on subscription traps found terms and conditions are not clearly displayed. To read our report click here'.
If your content will be printed then website links should be written out using a simple link if possible.
For example, 'see our style guide citizensadvice.org.uk/cablink/style'.
Linking to emails
Write out the email address in full. Don't use capital letters
For example: email@example.com
Some organisations are known, or prefer to be known, only by an abbreviation, for example, IBM, BP, BT - this is acceptable use. It's also OK to use well known abbreviations such as NHS and BBC.
All other titles should be written out when they're first used in the body of a text, with the abbreviation immediately following in brackets. The abbreviation can then be used on its own.
For example: 'The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) wants consumers to get a good deal. The FCA is funded entirely by the firms they regulate'.
These are abbreviations that are pronounced like a word (Aids, Defra, DECC and Nato). Usually you capitalise the first letter only but DECC is an exception. Government departments should always be written out in full at first.
Don't use unless part of a name (eg NS&I). All local Citizens Advice charities have an ampersand rather than 'and' in their names.
Example: Citizens Advice Nottingham & District.
Bold makes phrases and keywords stand out, so it should be used only when you want to emphasise text or help users find and return to a key term.
Be careful when using bold - clients might be drawn to what you put in bold and miss something important because it's not in bold.
Overuse of bold will result in users being drawn to many different points at once - this will be confusing.
As an organisation, we use bullet points a lot. In some cases, the content would be clearer in another form such as short paragraphs with subheadings.
Research shows readers are likely to stop reading bullet points after the 6th bullet. So try not to use more than this.
Keep the content short. Ideally just a few words for each bullet (see below for sentences). Use them sparingly or they lose impact.
Use a 'lead in line' (a sentence to introduce your bullet points) that ends in a colon. If the text that follows the bullet point isn't a sentence, it doesn't need to begin with a capital and it doesn't end with a full stop.
The top answers were:
- job satisfaction
- fair pay
If the text is a sentence, use a capital letter to start and don't use a full stop at the end. For example:
You can support the campaign in the following ways:
- Put posters and leaflets in public spaces (waiting rooms and reception areas)
- Look out for case studies that can be used in reports or media work
- Send a press release to local media using our template
Don't use semicolons or commas at the end of each line. Don't use another level of bullets within a bullet list.
Oxford Dictionary has a helpful section on using bullet points .
Don't use a comma to separate the last 2 items in a list unless you need it to remove ambiguity or confusion. For example, you should write:
You don't need to pay the financial requirement if you're getting JSA, ESA or Universal Credit.
Use contractions where appropriate. For example 'you'll', 'can't' and 'don't'. But don't use 'should've', 'could've' or 'would've' because these are hard to read.
Policy and research report writers may want to use a more formal tone.
Dash ( -)
Dashes are longer than hyphens but many keyboards don't have them so we often use hyphens instead.
Leave a space either side of a dash (don't leave any space when using a hyphen unless it is being used as a dash).
Never use a dash after a colon like this :-
Use 'for example' where possible and 'eg' if you are short on space.
Only one space after full stops.
We don't use a hyphen for prepayment but do for mis-selling. See A to Z for other examples.
We don't use italics because they are harder to read. Instead, we use single quotation marks to distinguish a word or phrase.
Avoid these if possible. They can make sentences longer and more complicated so consider breaking up the sentence.
Speech marks (also called quote marks and inverted commas)
Use double speech marks to quote someone. For example: "I've had enough of this," she said, "I'm going to contact Citizens Advice."
Use single quote marks for speech within speech. For example: "I read the terms and conditions and I told the sales assistant 'you're breaking the law'."
Use single speech marks for campaign titles when you mention them in copy.
A list of commonly used words and phrases.
act, act of parliament
lowercase if speaking generally but uppercase if using the full name eg 'Citizens Advice welcomes the Consumer Rights Act'.
Then lowercase if the full title is not mentioned. For example: The act introduces new rights for consumers.
additional State Pension
Autumn Statement and Comprehensive Spending Review
basic State Pension
‘Bedroom tax’ and ‘spare room subsidy’ are political terms used to describe the ‘under-occupation charge’ (also know as ‘under-occupancy charge’). ‘Bedroom tax’ and ‘spare room subsidy’ should be in quote marks.
lowercase unless a specific full title eg Housing and Planning Bill. But if you later refer to this as the bill or the housing bill, use lowercase.
don't use. Instead say 'the six largest energy providers'.
(These are: British Gas, npower, SSE, Scottish Power, EDF and E.ON)
lowercase but names of specific benefits are uppercase eg Jobseeker's Allowance, Universal Credit, State Pension.
British Sign Language
a friend or relative who provides unpaid support. Someone who is employed to support a disabled person is a personal assistant.
Care to Learn scheme
Citizens Advice consumer service
contributory Employment and Support Allowance
contribution-based Jobseeker's Allowance
council, local council
uppercase for a specific council, eg "Dover District Council".
uppercase when referring to a specific court, eg "Lambeth County Court".
court of appeal
customers or consumers?
a customer pays for a product or service and a consumer uses a service or product
'person in an abusive relationship' or 'living with violence or abuse', 'a victim (or survivor) of violence or abuse', 'have experienced violence or abuse' or 'experiencing violence or abuse'.
we also use 'experienced gender violence or abuse' as a wider term that includes domestic abuse/violence, sexual harassment, 'honour' crimes and forced marriage, trafficking, rape and sexual violence, stalking and female genital mutilation (FGM).
drugs, alcohol and gambling
use 'problem' or 'problems with' when writing about drugs, alcohol or gambling. Don't use 'abuse' when talking about these topics. For example, 'You can ask for more frequent payments of your benefits if you have a drug or alcohol problem'.
Equality Act 2010
lists 9 protected characteristics. We all have at least 4 so it's equality for everyone.
we talk about equality and not 'equalities'.
face-to-face or face to face?
hyphen if used as an adjective, no hyphen otherwise so:
We give face-to-face appointments. We give face-to-face advice (adjective).
We give advice face to face. We see people face to face (adverb).
people "fill in" forms, not "fill out" forms.
but names of specific government departments have initial capitals when full name is used, eg Home Office, HM Treasury, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
House of Commons
House of Lords
Houses of Parliament
use 'the Jobcentre', not 'Jobcentre plus'
'JSA' can be used after the first mention
Try not to use - use local councils instead
local education authority
Money Advice Service
National Insurance number
National Insurance contributions
don't use "NICs".
National Living Wage
National Minimum Wage
lower case unless in a formal name eg North Middlesex Hospital. So north London, north Wales, north-west England, the north-west and the north of England.
but 'parliamentary reception'. Also 'Lord Jones is a Parliamentarian' (eg when using as a title) but 'parliamentarians attended the meeting'.
per cent, percentage
but we use the symbol '%' instead of writing 'per cent'
photocard driving licence
Post Office or post office?
when you write about the company (including its products and services) you use 'Post Office'. But when you are talking about places you visit to post things you use 'post office' or 'post offices' (or 'sub-post office').
prepay, prepayment, prepaid
provisional driving licence
private rented sector
hyphen if adjective, no hyphen otherwise (eg 'If your car is second hand' and 'If you buy a second-hand car')
Secure Accommodation Order
Self Assessment tax return
use self-employed people not the self-employed
special educational needs
lowercase, but can use acronym 'SEN' once it has been written out in full first time.
State Second Pension
State Pension age
lowercase unless in a title or place name eg South Yorkshire
never 'UC' because it is a new benefit and people may not recognise it.
content is 'on' a website, not 'at' a website. For example: 'Use the budgeting tool on our website.'
Working Tax Credits
use 'ise' not 'ize'. For example: summarise, organise
Writing in plain English means using simpler words
Here are some ways to use simpler words in your writing to make it easier to understand.
|make up, form||constitute|
|tell, let us know, let you know||notify|
The Plain English Campaign has a longer list of useful alternative words.
Avoid jargon wherever possible. Use plain English as all times. However, you may need to use it so people are aware of an official name of something eg 'mandatory reconsideration' or 'statute-barred debt'.
When these terms are first introduced, give a simple explanation, then put the term in single quotations.
For example: "You can ask the Jobcentre to look at new evidence and review their decision - this is called 'mandatory reconsideration'."
You can then refer to the term without single quotations.
Here are a few reminders to help you with your writing.
Use one to show something belongs to someone or something eg Jim's book. If the word ends with an 's' you don't need a second 's'. For example, James' book.
Use an apostrophe when part of a word is missing. For example, 'I will' becomes 'I'll'.
The tricky one is 'its'. This can be spelt 'it's' if it means 'it is'. But if it means something belongs to someone (or something) you say 'its'. So 'the Department of Health has reviewed its policy how much alcohol is safe to drink'.
Don't use one when you are writing about a decade. For example, do write 'the 1980s' but don't write 'the 1980's'.
These style points are for content designers who write advice.
Addressing the user
Use 'you' when writing for clients.
Bold makes phrases and keywords stand out, so it should be used only when you want to emphasise text or help users find and return to a key term. If you're just defining some jargon, use single quotations instead of bold.
Be careful when using bold - clients might be drawn to what you put in bold and miss something important because it’s not in bold. If you overuse bold users will be drawn to many different points at once - this will be confusing.
It's good to get a second opinion or raise it at a crit.
Contact details must follow this format:
Independent Police Complaints Commission
Telephone: 08453 002 002
Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm
Fax: 02020 361 948
90 High Holborn
Call costs should be clearly communicated. For example: "Calls to this number can cost up to 9p a minute from a landline, or between 8p and 40p a minute from a mobile (your phone supplier can tell you how much you’ll pay)."
As part of active voice, front-load sentences with actions wherever possible. This means starting the sentence with an action.
“Send the form to HMRC.”
“Tell your landlord that your boiler is broken.”
You can start sentences with 'if' when you're defining different audiences - for example:
If you've already talked to your employer...
If you haven't talked to your employer yet...
Make sure you're not starting every sentence with 'if' though - you can usually flip it and keep the same meaning.
Headings and titles
Users will scan headings to pick out what parts to read in detail, so it's important to give them some thought.
Headings and titles must:
- be active where possible, eg “Get help to pay for healthcare”
- include keywords for search engine optimisation
- use dashes where necessary - don't use colons
- be in sentence case with no full stop
- not include jargon or acronyms, unless they’re well known
- not be a question - no question marks
- address the user as “you”, not “I”
If a subheading is for a particular audience use “If” to define that audience, ie:
“If you’ve already applied for Universal Credit”
not: “You’ve already applied for Universal Credit”
Don’t use italics. Publication titles must be in single quotation marks and in title case.
Links and websites
Use normal sentences and descriptive language when linking - the link itself should be an active phrase.
Don’t use a URL as link text, unless writing out contact details - in this case the correct format is "www.website.com".
Be aware of user journeys when adding links in. You’re leading people away from the page with every link, so consider the placement. It's not a good idea to have a lot of links at the top of a piece, because you're just sending people away before you meet the user need.
“Some investments have more risk than others. You should get help from a financial adviser before deciding on how you invest your money.”
Use "read about" or "find out more" to link users to more information.
Internal links (links to other pages on our site) are always in the same window.
Make sure you let users know if they’ll be taken away from our site:
“The Pensions Advisory Service has a pension comparison tool that can help you decide what pension is best for you.”
Avoid giving long descriptions of external links:
“The Money Advice Service is a free, independent service. Their website has lots of useful information about pensions including comparison tables for choosing a personal pension provider and a pension calculator for working out how much pension you'll need. There's also a range of leaflets to help answer your pensions and retirement questions. Go to: www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk.”
“You can get free and independent advice on pensions from the Money Advice Service.”
Content is “on” a website, not “at” a website. For example:
“Use the budgeting tool on the Money Advice Service website.”
Our research showed that clients often want to read more than one source when solving their problems, so it can be valuable to link out to related content and other forms of support. But be sure the link adds something that we’re not offering (rather than linking to very similar content). Calculators and tools are especially useful.
Don’t link to commercial sites unless absolutely necessary (eg in the rare case they’re providing a vital service that’s not found anywhere else). If you do, run it past an SME and try to include more than one for impartiality. Always get a second opinion and run it past a head of content before linking to a commercial site.
In general, external links (links to other sites) should also be in the same window. However, you might have good reason for using a new window. For example, if you’re giving guidance on how to fill in an online form - the user might want to switch between our advice and the online form. Therefore it’s a good idea to use a new window. Do research and user test this wherever possible.
Meta descriptions appear underneath the page title in search results. Users will skim these (at best) so they need to be loaded with keywords and kept short and list-like. More than 2 lines of copy is probably too long. Put a full stop at the end.
"Apply for Universal Credit
How to apply online, by phone or in person, what information you’ll need, where to get help and what happens next."
Steps (numbered lists)
Use numbered steps to explain a process. Write a lead in line before your numbered steps. Each step must start with a capital letter but you don't need a full stop at the end.
These are the steps you should follow:
- This is the first step
- This is the second step
- Here's the third step
If you have any questions or feedback please email firstname.lastname@example.org