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Style guide

Style guide

Welcome to the University of Exeter’s style guide. The guide is made up of two sections: the house style and the word list.

In the house style, we have provided guidance on how to use and present:

  • commonly used document elements
  • notoriously confusing issues of punctuation and grammar
  • sector-specific language and conventions.

In the word list, you will find guidance on words, phrases and expressions that can be written in different ways. In some cases, the guidance will be a matter of convention, i.e. where there is only one ‘correct’ way to express the item, or where the form chosen is based on one or more external sources (see References). In other cases, we will have chosen a particular form for the university’s style.

Accessibility + clarity + consistency = confidence

The purpose of this guide is to make our written communications more accessible to staff and students, and to members of our community for whom English is an additional language, or who experience language-based learning difficulties.

It is therefore important that all our communications are written with clarity. Finally, this guide is designed to ensure a greater level of consistency across all communications and platforms: this is crucial to inspire confidence in our messaging, and therefore the institution as a whole.

How you can help

We know that language and our reactions to it change over time. We also know that this guide doesn’t (and couldn’t!) cover every word or phrase, or every type of writing we use. Therefore, if you have a suggestion, a correction, or a question, please contact

University of Exeter style guide

General writing style guidelines; also see A-Z of house style.

The Plain English Campaign describes plain English as ‘a message, written with the reader in mind and with the right tone of voice, that is clear and concise.’

Plain English conveys your meaning easily and quickly by using clear, punchy sentences addressed directly to the reader. It does not change your meaning or make complex thoughts simplistic – but it does make them more comprehensible and more persuasive.

Most experts would agree that clear writing should have an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words. This does not mean making every sentence the same length, but you should vary your style by mixing short sentences with longer ones, following the basic principle of sticking to one main idea in a sentence, plus perhaps one other related point.

Call the reader ‘you’, and call the University/College/Department ‘we’. Referring to the reader impersonally (‘applicants’, ‘students’) is off-putting for them.

  • Use active verbs as much as possible – ‘we will do’ rather than ‘it will be done’
  • Passive language sounds impersonal and bureaucratic whereas active verbs tend to engage the reader more
  • Always try to emphasise the positive side of things - ‘If you don’t send your application form, we won’t make you an offer.’ (Negative) ‘Please send your application form so we can make you an offer as soon as possible.’ (Positive)

Lists are excellent for splitting information up and they make information easier to absorb. With a list that is part of a continuous sentence, put semicolons (;) after each point and start each with a lower-case letter (unless list items are module titles for example).

  • Stop and think before you start writing. Make a note of the points you want to make in a logical order
  • Prefer short words. Long words will not impress your audience or help your writing style
  • Use everyday English whenever possible. Avoid jargon and legalistic words, and explain any technical terms you have to use
  • Keep your sentence length down to an average of 15 to 20 words. Try to stick to one main idea in a sentence
  • Use active verbs as much as possible. Say 'we will do it' rather than 'it will be done by us'
  • Be concise
  • Imagine you are talking to your reader. Write sincerely, personally, in a style that is suitable and with the right tone of voice
  • Always check that your writing is clear, helpful, human and polite
  • Adapted from the website of the Plain English Campaign.

For specific guidance on spelling, preferred vocabulary, punctuation and organisation of copy for both print and web, use the style guidelines to help keep a consistent style across publications and websites.

Below is a list of sources used to help compile this guide.

The Guardian and Observer style guide

New Hart’s rules (2014) 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

New Oxford dictionary for writers and editors (2014) 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

New Oxford spelling dictionary (2014) 3rd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pears, R. and Shields, G. (2016) Cite them right: the essential referencing guide. 10th edn. London: PALGRAVE.

Plain English Campaign (no date) How to write in plain English

Plain English Campaign (2001) The A to Z of alternative words

Thomas, C. and Saffrey, A. (2018) Your house style. 3rd edn. London: Society for Editors and Proofreaders.

The Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation (CIHT), UK Nations & Regions

Stonewall’s Glossary of Terms