Writing for our website

When writing content for the website, the following checklist might be helpful to create content consistent with the University house style.

Does your content:

  • Address the target audience for whom it is written?
  • Use language that is precise, concise and emotive?
  • Use facts or examples to support assertions and claims of excellence and quality?
  • Use clear and simple language avoiding jargon and colloquialisms? Where these are unavoidable, have you explained them to a reader whose first language may not be English?
  • Demonstrate the University’s local, national and global impact?
  • Make sense when read aloud?
  • Sound confident, sincere and authentic?
  • Signpost the reader to the most important information on the page?

Tone of voice

Provoking a reaction

The website has been designed to be consistent with the University’s brand principles and strategic framework, the central concept of which is to ‘provoke’: to provoke action, debate and thought. This is best expressed through our four key values below:

  • Challenges convention
  • Encourages inquiring minds
  • Makes an impact
  • Shapes thoughts and opinions through debate

In keeping with these ideas our communications should provoke a reaction.

We use these four values to assess our ‘copy’ and its messages:

  • excite curiosity and encourage people to look into the subject in more detail
  • stimulate discussion and debate
  • challenge conventional thinking or approaches and take a point of view that is distinctive
  • spur people to do something in response

Who are we talking to?

The website has been designed with the end user in mind, with five priority audience groups:

  • Prospective undergraduates, including international UG students
  • Prospective postgraduates, including international PG students
  • Academic researchers (collaborators and funders)
  • Business organisations (partners, collaborators, graduate employers) and prospective partners
  • Alumni

There will be sections of the site which specifically target these individual groups, while other material will be generic.

Nevertheless, wherever the user is in the site, as content providers you should always be challenging yourself:

  • Is this interesting to the audience(s)?
  • Is it understandable to the audience(s)?
  • What is it telling them?
  • Will they remember it?
  • Is it something that they really need to know?

If the answer to any of these questions is negative, either remove or review the content.

When writing content it is always important to remember that the reader will be constantly asking the questions, what is this telling me? Also, more importantly, what’s in it for me? Why should I commit to Birmingham?

Clarity and simplicity

The website should reflect the fact that the University is a high quality educational institution. In accordance with a high quality educational establishment, the website copy should have the following plain English attributes.

  • Clarity – clear, unambiguous and easily understood sentences that are not overlong or include too many phrases
  • Simplicity – straightforward but not simplistic messages that are easy to read and can be understood quickly: paragraphs are concise and make the meaning of your sentences clear and unambiguous. Remember that your readers will be intelligent.
  • Honesty – the best policy: do not make claims that are not true. If we are not world leading in an area, do not say that we are. However, when you DO make claims for our quality, make sure that you back this up with evidence; not simply: ‘We have excellent teaching’, but rather: ‘Our teaching is excellent because…’
  • Economic language – Ensure that you edit all unnecessary words out of your sentences, for example, rather than: ‘We are seeking to ensure that we will be…’ use: ‘We will be…’
  • First person for general content – write in the first person: the terms ‘you’ and ‘we’ are the preferred form for addressing the reader.
  • Third person – write in the third person when creating a staff profile. This allows the University and the author far more flexibility to write widely about the person rather than just from first hand experience. Writing in the third person is considered more academic and it allows us and academics to sell themselves and their work a lot better.
  • Jargon free – above all, avoid jargon (including Higher Education jargon), slang, acronyms and technical language – as they can all alienate the reader. Test your copy by asking yourself whether an international student would understand what you are writing.

Show not tell

Visitors to our website are likely to be comparing us with other Higher Education institutions, both in the UK and overseas. The HE sector is becoming increasingly competitive; so now, more than ever, we need to be motivating people to choose Birmingham over our competitors.

Our style of writing should include language that is:

  • Inspiring
  • Emotive
  • Precise
  • Intelligent
  • Concise

While the language should be persuasive, it should not be hyperbolic or overuse adjectives or adverbs. We should be able to express our excellence through facts rather than an elaborate use of words.

Neither should the language become over familiar or over formal. The tone of voice should be intelligent, pleasant, interested and interesting. The content should show that we have aspirations for ourselves, our students and staff, and that we are all:

  • Ambitious – and not complacent
  • Confident and assured – but not arrogant
  • Seek to be excellent, or demonstrate excellence

Wherever possible, we should be using real examples to demonstrate to our audiences the impact of research and teaching at Birmingham.

If appropriate audio and/or video content are not available, use proven examples when describing work.

Evidence the claims that you make with quotes or fact boxes with case studies. As stated in the University brand guidelines – don’t tell people you’re funny; tell them a joke!

Example – from website

Research in the community

‘Our clinical trials tackle illnesses that include cancer, leukaemia, Alzheimer’s and congenital heart disease. They offer hope to thousands of Midlands’ patients and their families. We work in partnership with one of the largest teaching hospitals in Europe, the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Birmingham. Here, our researchers take the latest developments from the laboratory to the patient’s bedside in the quickest time possible.’

Consider how your text will display on the screen – long lists must be avoided and/or replaced by written content. Long paragraphs of dense text are also overwhelming on a screen and should be avoided. Keep your copy strong and sparse.

Birmingham: local, national, global

The University’s strategic framework considers the impact that we have on a local, national and global level. Therefore, our website should include evidence of our work, locally, nationally and internationally.

Check that the film, pictures, case studies and quotes that you use include elements of each of these themes.

Consider the international audience and our desire to be amongst the leading global institutions – what evidence can we use to demonstrate that we are already an international institution?

House style guide

The aim of these guidelines is to ensure a consistent level of quality throughout the University of Birmingham websites. Web copy needs to be concise and carefully targeted to the user’s needs. Information needs to be broken down using headings, bullet points, links, summaries and keywords. 

Abbreviations and acronyms

Be cautious of using abbreviations and acronyms that might be familiar to you but not necessarily to your reader. Question whether your reader will understand them before you use them, especially if you are considering our international readers. Also make sure that abbreviations and acronyms are not ambiguous, having more than one possible interpretation.

Acronyms: Words formed from the initial letters or syllables taken from a group of words thatform the name of a company, organisation, process, product, etc.

Abbreviation: A shortened form of a word or phrase. Abbreviations and acronyms should be written in full at first mention, and bracketed if they are to be used again, for example:

  • Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences (GEES)
  • The University Executive Board (UEB)
  • Higher Education institution (HEI)

Exceptions to this rule include academic awards (GSCE, BA etc) and well known acronyms (BBC, UCAS etc). Full stops should not be used with acronyms or abbreviations, including academic awards anddegrees and titles, for example:

  • BA, MA, MPhil(B), BPhil, EngD, EdD, PhD, PGDip, AdCert

We do not abbreviate Professor to Prof.

A rule of thumb for when to use ‘e.g.’ and ‘i.e.’ is to think of ‘e.g.’ as ’example given’ and‘i.e.’ as ‘in effect’.

An over-use of acronyms can look awkward and clutter up the text with initials. Where such terms frequently recur, consider using an alternative part of the term (ie, the Agency). In some cases it may be appropriate to write out the term in full again.


Use apostrophes to indicate the following:

  • The omission of a letter or letters ie, don’t, it’s, didn’t, can’t, they’re
  • Singular possession or ownership ie, the tutor’s work, the student’s books, one day’s leave
  • Plural possession or ownership ie, the tutors' work, the students’ books, two days’ leave

Please note the following common mistakes:


  • Students means a number of students
  • Student's means belonging to one student
  • Students’ means belonging to more than one student
  • The correct form is Students’ Union


  • It’s is short for it is: It’s a five minute walk to the centre of campus
  • Its means belonging to it: The University has its own railway station


  • They’re is short for ‘they are’: They’re planning an event
  • There is an adverb: The event is over there
  • There is also a noun: Over 200 people are going there
  • Their is possessive: The event demonstrated their skills


  • You’re is short for ‘you are’: Make sure you’re registered
  • Your is possessive: Please register your details

Numbers, dates, letters and abbreviations

We do not use apostrophes in the plural form of numbers, dates, letters or abbreviations; for example:

  • He got four As and two Bs
  • This programme began in the 1960s
  • We have ten PhDs in our department
  • We have done well in all RAEs

Time and money

We do use apostrophes in time references, as in:

  • We will meet in one hour’s time
  • I am taking a week’s holiday
  • The Selly Oak Campus is about one mile’s drive from the main campus

Companies, organisations and institutions

Knowing whether or not to use an apostrophe when referring to commercial companies, organisations or institutions and their belongings can be tricky, as some choose not to use it

If in doubt check on their respective websites to see what they do.


Round brackets are used in the following ways:

  • As a means of definition, explanation, reference, or translation e.g., Parentheses (round brackets), Machtpolitik (power politics)
  • To supply ancillary information such as abbreviations, references, cross-references and variants e.g., Animal Biology (see page 230), Times Literary Supplement
  • When using reference figures or letters within text, such as (a), (b), (c) (TLS)

In normal running text, try to avoid brackets within brackets: where this is inevitable, double parentheses are preferable to square brackets.

Bullet points

Bullet points are very important in web writing to break large chunks of text into easily readable lists. Bullet points should be fairly short and punchy in style, for example:

We offer:

  • intensive care
  • day care and obstetric anaesthesia
  • clinical measurement
  • cardiac anaesthesis

Bullet points begin with a capital letter if they start a new sentence, otherwise they should start with a lower case letter. They should have no full stop at the end. If the bullet point is lengthy you can use a semi colon, or consider splitting it into separate bullet points.

The introductory text must agree grammatically with each bullet; always check that this is the case by reading your text aloud. For example, the following is grammatically incorrect:

The University of Birmingham has:

  • we have our own railway station
  • first class facilities are available
  • internet access is provided in all rooms

The correct agreement is as follows. The University of Birmingham has:

  • its own railway station
  • first class facilities
  • internet access in all rooms


University names and titles

We use an upper case initial ‘U’ for ‘the University’ when directly referring to ‘the University of Birmingham’ and the words ‘of Birmingham’ have been omitted, for example:

  • The University of Birmingham’s global impact
  • Travelling to the University of Birmingham
  • The University of Birmingham is situated in Edgbaston

If the words ‘of Birmingham’ do not follow ‘university’ then you use a lowercase ‘u’, for example:

  • The global impact of our university
  • We are a global university
  • Students choosing this university

We use a lower case ‘u’ when referring to universities in general, for example:

  • Students came from a range of universities
  • Applying to university

Initial capitals should be used when writing the full names of colleges, schools and departments (e.g., College of Arts and Law, School of Education, Department of Music) and names of committees and Corporate Services (e.g., Research Committee, Finance Office).

These can be shortened to ‘the School’, ‘the College’, ‘the Department’, ‘the Committee’ but should still be capitalised. There is no need to use capitals if referring to generic rather than specific colleges, schools or departments, for example:

  • Every department has its own website
  • A number of schools participated

The following always take initial capital letters:

  • Titles of government departments - the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Home Office, Ministry of Defence
  • Titles of courtesy, honour and rank - Her Royal Highness, Vice-Chancellor, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Vice-Principal, Professor
  • Titles of degree programmes, modules and courses of study - the MA in Modern European Cultures comprises six modules including Ideas of Europe and Nations and their Neighbours
  • Titles of books and other publications, poems or songs (also usually italicised) - A Tale of Two Cities, Woman’s Own, The Four Quartets, and My Way

In general, higher education and open days are not capitalised unless referring to a title. This is the same for undergraduate and postgraduate:

  • We have a number of open days
  • Find out more about the September Open Day
  • Teaching in higher education
  • The Higher Education Academy
  • Postgraduate Certificate of Education
  • Postgraduate Prospectus 2011
  • She has completed her undergraduate studies
  • We are ready to publish our next postgraduate prospectus

Academic subjects

Capitalise the names of academic subjects only in the context of programmes, courses and examinations e.g., he received a degree in Chemistry, but he enjoyed chemistry above all other subjects.

Organisations and bodies

When organisations, government departments, official bodies and office-holders are referred to by anything other than their precise title, lower case should be used. For example:

  • The Minister of State for Health (but the health minister)

Generic versus specific

Initial capital letters makes a word specific in its reference: distinguishing for instance, between ‘the white house’ (a house painted white) and ‘the White House’ (the official residence of the President of the USA).

Titles should be in initial capitals when referring to specific individuals or institutions but lower case when used generally.

In the context of the University, we write about ‘heads of schools and departments’ (all lowercase) but capitalise specific examples such as ‘Professor I Moore, Head of the School of Metaphysics.’ Similarly, we capitalise ‘the School of Chemistry’, ‘the Department of Economics’, but in general reference we write about the University’s academic schools, departments, divisions and institutes.


There is no need to capitalise the initial letter of internet, website unless the word starts a sentence. All email addresses and web addresses should be written in lowercase.

Web page headings

Headlines, headings and sub-headings within web pages should be treated in the same way as sentences; there is no need to use initial capital letters for any words other than the first word and any proper nouns. For example:

  • Using our facilities
  • Student life at Birmingham

Contact information


We do not use commas or other punctuation at the end of each address line. We do not use ‘the’ for University of Birmingham.

Email addresses

We use lower case letters throughout in all email addresses, for example:
  • j.smith@bham.ac.uk
We always express email as one word (no hyphen) with a lowercase initial ‘e’, unless at the beginning of a sentence.

Telephone numbers

We do not use hyphens within telephone numbers. The formatting of a telephone number should be expressed as follows:
  • +44 (0)121 414 2536

Dates and times


Dates should only be written in one of the following formats:

  • Tuesday 1 February 2011 
  • 1 February 2011
  • 1 February

In news and events dates are abbreviated to six figures, for example 01/02/11.

When referring to centuries you can use ‘th’, ‘st’ and ‘nd’ and a lowercase ‘c’ for example: 

  • 20th century
  • 21st century
  • 2nd century

Time of day

We use the 24-hour clock (eg, 09:00, 15:45). Midday is expressed as 12 noon and midnight as 12 midnight. When using live streaming from the website it is important that we make the user aware that we are using times which are Greenwich Mean Time. This can be expressed by adding ‘GMT’ after the times in brackets e.g. 09:00-13:00 (GMT) or indeed (GMT+1) if it is British Summer Time.

Periods of time

When expressing periods of time we use a hyphen, for example:

  • 2005-08

A range of dates within the same month should be expressed as:

  • 2-17 November

A range of dates within different months should be expressed as:

  • 28 August-3 September

General punctuation

Ampersand (&)

Only use the ampersand if:

• It is used as part of a company’s name eg, Procter & Gamble, Pickering & Chatto
• When writing references, in which case you must use the ampersand if it appears in the original work
• You need to make a distinction, as in the School of English, Drama, American & Canadian Studies, where the ampersand links ‘American and Canadian’ together and distinguishes them from the other subject areas.


A colon separates two clauses that are logically related, fulfilling the same function as the following words and phrases:

  • As
  • As follows
  • Because
  • For example
  • Namely
  • Such as
  • That is
  • Therefore

It is principally used:

  • when the first part of the sentence is complete in both sense and construction, and the following part naturally arises form it in sense, though not in construction, as in: ‘The professor had given lectures all over the world: I should like to be a professor’.
  • to lead from introduction to main theme, as in ‘The question is one of universal interest: what is the secret of a long and happy life?’
  • to lead from cause to effect, as in ‘It started to rain: the match was abandoned.’
  • to lead from a general statement to an example, as in ‘Birmingham has some excellent restaurants: Simpson’s in Edgbaston has two Michelin stars’
  • to introduce a list of items, especially after such expressions as ‘for example’ and ‘including’


The comma is used in a wide range of ways to structure sentences and clarify meaning; for example:

  • to separate clauses within a sentence
  • between adjectives that qualify a noun in the same way
  • when a phrase would mean something completely different without it; for example: ‘He drove a light red car’ as opposed to ‘he drove a light, red car’
  • to separate items in a list of more than two items
  • to mark the beginning and end of a parenthetical word or phrase; for example: ‘Edward Elgar, Peyton Professor of Music, was appointed in March 1905’
  • before a quotation, although a colon can be used for increased weight of sentence
  • in numbers of four or more figures, as in 4,500


This is the omission of words and consists of three full stops (...) used to mark that omission. When used at the end of an incomplete sentence, a fourth full stop is not required.

Full stop

Full stops are not needed in headings but may be used in sub-headings, bullet points or captions.


We denote paragraphs with a single line break and do not indent the initial word.

Start a new paragraph as often as possible to present your reader with manageable chunks of information.

Consider adding subheadings (using key words) to denote a change in theme.


A semi-colon separates those parts of a sentence between which there is a more distinct break than would call for a comma, but which are too closely connected to be made into separate sentences.

It should separate clauses or phrases that are similar in importance or grammatical construction, for example:

  • I know the city well; I’ve lived there all my life

In a list which any of the elements contain commas, semi-colons are used to clarify the relationship of the components, for example:

  • I should like to thank staff at Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge; Kings College, London; and the School of Medicine, University of Birmingham

Single spacing

Use a single space following a full stop.

Italics and underlining


Italics are hard to read on screen and should not be used for full sentences or for headings.

Italics are used:

  • for the titles of books, newspapers, magazines and other publications
  • for the titles of plays, films, TV and radio series, and CDs
  • for the titles of paintings, sculptures and other works of art
  • for the individual names of ships, trains, aircraft, spacecraft, and other means of transport
  • for foreign words or phrases that are not naturalised (eg, arriviste)
  • as a method of emphasising or distinguishing words (eg, The weather was so cold last winter)


When writing for an online audience, never use underlining for emphasis. Your words will be mistaken for hyperlinks.


We use words for numbers from one to ten (inclusive) and figures for all numbers over ten.

Where fractions are used with whole numbers in this range, they are also spelt out and not hyphenated (e.g., three and a half). Where fractions are used with whole numbers in this range, figures should also be used (e.g.,16.)

Figures are also used for decimal fractions, percentages, and in sets linking more than two numerals where some are higher and some lower than ten (e.g., Deaths from this cause in the past three years were 14, 9 and 6).

Do not start a sentence with a figure; write the number in words instead (e.g., Eighty-six places will be available on this programme in 2011).

In textual matter simple fractions should be spelt out in words and hyphenated, even when figures are higher than ten (e.g., two-thirds, five-eighths, one-twentieth).

In statistical material, fractions are written numerically (e.g., ½, ¼, ¾ ). Million and billion are spelt out as words, whether referring to people, objects or sums of money (e.g., five million people, five million donations, ¢G5 million).

The following are expressed in figures only:

  • Dates (e.g., Tuesday 1 February)
  • Degrees of heat (e.g., It is 32C in the shade)
  • Money (e.g., £5.50, £25)
  • Races (both distance and time)
  • Scores in games and matches
  • Specific gravity
  • Statistics
  • Time of the day
  • Numbers of votes
  • Weights when abbreviated units, such as grams or kilograms, are given
  • Page numbers (note: in non-academic texts page ranges should be expressed as pages 21-30 rather than pp 21-30)

Quotations and quotation marks


Make sure you give the source of your quotations. All extracts in the exact words of the original have quotation marks:

  • at the beginning
  • at the start of each paragraph
  • at the end of the extract

Punctuation within the extract should be exactly as the original and the concluding full stop goes within the quotation marks when it is part of the original quotation.

When a whole sentence is a quotation, full stops, commas and other punctuation marks are placed inside the quotation marks; if the quoted matter forms only part of the sentence, and the punctuation mark is not part of the quote, it comes outside the quotation marks (e.g., The report praised the ‘tireless efforts of the dedicated and hard-working staff’.)

Quotation marks

There are two types of quotation marks, or inverted commas: single (‘ ’) and double (“ ”). We follow standard British practice, enclosing quoted matter between single quotation marks. Single quotes and roman (regular) type are used when citing the titles of articles in magazines, chapters of books, essays and songs. They may also be used to enclose an unfamiliar term, or one being used in a specific technical sense. Usually this is only necessary for the first occurrence of the word or phrase.

Quotations within quotations

These are indicated by the use of double quotation marks within single e.g., ‘When I say “immediately”, I mean some time before April’, said the spokesman"


Preferred spellings

  • Adviser not advisor
  • Email is always spelt as one word
  • Focused, focusing not focussed, focussing
  • Homepage is always spelt as one word
  • Liaise, liaison not liase, liason
  • Login is always spelt as one word
  • Online is always spelt as one word
  • Targeted not targetted
  • Web page is always spelt as two words
  • Website is always spelt as one word

Common misspellings

  • Accommodation not acommodation or accomodation
  • Advice/advise - advice is a noun: give or receive advice; advise is a verb: to advise someone
  • Definitely not definately
  • Dependent/dependant - dependent means depending on or subject to; dependant means someone who depends on someone else
  • Enquiry/inquiry - enquiry is asking a question; inquiry is a formal investigation
  • Licence/license - licence is a noun: driving licence; license is a verb: to authorise or permit something
  • Practice/practise - practice is a noun: best practice; practise is a verb: practise the violin
  • Principal/principle - principal means first or most important: college principal, principal theme; Principle is a fundamental truth or a personal code of conduct
  • Separate not seperate
  • Stationary/stationery - stationary means to not move; stationery means office supplies


While it is a good idea to run a spelling and grammar check on your documents, please be aware that spellcheckers do not spot all the errors and may even be responsible for creating some.

Make sure your spell checker is programmed for UK English.

Split infinitives

It is the University’s preference to avoid split infinitives if you can do so without distorting the sentence.

The infinitive is the base form of a verb; one that describes an action or occurrence. There are two types of infinitive:

  • the to-infinitive, as in They decided to go
  • the base-infinitive, which is without the word ‘to’, as in We saw him go

To split the infinitive is to insert one or more words (usually adverbs - words that describe or qualify the action) between the infinitive-marker or base-marker and the verb that follows, for example:

  • they decided to quickly go rather than They decided to go quickly
  • we saw him swiftly go rather than We saw him go swiftly

An example of a well-known split infinitive is: To boldly go where no man has gone before. 

Here the word ‘boldly’ splits the to-infinitive ‘to go’. It should be ‘to go boldly’ - but it doesn’t have as much impact and it shifts the emphasis or stress from ‘boldly’ (the word they intended to emphasise) to ‘go’ (the word they didn’t want to emphasise so much). So, in this instance, the infinitive was split for deliberate effect.

Examples of split infinitives we might use at the University include:

  • we aim to successfully find you a course
  • the University will try to generally improve its position in the league tables
  • we wish to carefully consider issues of equality and diversity on campus
  • our responsibility is to gently support you through your degree programme
  • historically, the University has tried to systematically push forward the boundaries of knowledge
  • new ideas and research are to always be carried forward

If not splitting the infinitive alters your intended meaning, or sounds awkward and ambiguous (has more than one meaning) you need to rewrite your sentence.

Web links

  • Link text should clearly describe the link destination, for example: For more information visit the Media Centre website
  • Avoid using non-descriptive links such as ‘click here’ or ‘more information’ as they will not be meaningful if viewed out of context of the page
  • When linking to a PDF or any other non web page document, always specify the file type and size, for example: Edgbaston campus map (PDF - 3MB)
  • Email addresses are written in lowercase in the full form: j.smith@bham.ac.uk
  • Web addresses should be written without the ‘http://’ prefix e.g., www.birmingham.ac.uk
  • If a link is at the end of a sentence ensure the full stop is outside the link
  • Links should always open in the same window - whether to external sites or to University of Birmingham sites; links opening in new browser windows can be confusing for users, as the ‘back’ button in the new window no longer lets them navigate back


Can you help?

This section of the site is a work in progress - over time, Contensis editors from across the University will be adding more guidance and training resources to this area. If you can help to develop this section, or if you have an idea for a resource that would be useful, get in touch with the Digital Channel Management team.



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