Blooper 46: Inconsistent Style

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Blooper 46: Inconsistent Style

Related to inconsistent terminology, we have the blooper of inconsistent writing style. Many websites and Web applications exhibit stylistic inconsistencies in the text of instructions, link text, product descriptions, buttons labels, page titles, and so on. Common inconsistencies include the following:

  • Labeling some links or buttons as actions (verbs or verb phrases) but others as objects (nouns or noun phrases), for example, "Show History" versus "Details"

  • Using terse, "telegraphic" language for some form-field labels, for example, "Desired delivery date," but wordy language for others, for example, "Please specify the address to which the flowers are to be delivered"

  • Using title case (e.g., "Privacy Policy") for some links, sentence case (e.g., "Investor info ") for others, and lower case (e.g., "contact us") for still others

  • Ending some but not all sentences (e.g., in instructions or error messages) with periods

While inconsistent writing style may not diminish the usability of a website as much as inconsistent terminology does, it certainly diminishes the impression site visitors get of the company or organization that owns the website.

Some Examples

Figure 6.28 is an excerpt from a form on Are fields in this form labeled with(l) questions, (2) commands, (3) simple nouns, or (4) all of the above? If you answered "d, all of the above," you're right! Why isn't the third field labeled "What is your zip code?" Why isn't the fourth one labeled "What is your e-mail address?" Alternatively, why aren't the first two and the last one just nouns: "First name," "Last name ," "E-mail address?"

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Figure 6.28: (Mar. 2002) ”Inconsistent label style ” questions, noun, command.

Form fields should be labeled as briefly and simply as possible. In this example, all should be labeled as simple nouns, as "Zip code" is.

The Association for Computing Machinery's website,, is fairly consistent in its writing style, but in a few places there are glaring inconsistencies. One such place is on the site's Search page. In addition to the usual search controls, the site offers several specialized searches, which search specific information sources or archives (Figure 6.29). The problem is that the wording of the links to these different searches is inconsistent.

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Figure 6.29: (May 2002) ”Inconsistent link-writing style ” Some mention ACM; some don't. Some end with "Now"; some don't.

Three of the links identify their information resource as belonging to ACM, for example, "Search the ACM Portal Now"; two don't, for example, "Search the Online Guide Now." Presumably, these are all ACM information resources, so it isn't really necessary to include "ACM" in the links. However, if they really wanted to mention ACM, they should have included it in all of these links. Furthermore, the first three links end with the word "Now," such as "Search the ACM Digital Library Now." The last two links don't say "Now"; does that mean that they don't search when you click on them, but sometime later? There is no apparent reason for these inconsistencies in writing; they were probably just added at different times by different people, with no oversight to maintain consistent writing style.

Many websites list product or topic categories. Often, category names are links to the indicated page or section. Such labels should be written in a consistent style but often are not. provides an example of inconsistent product category names (Figure 6.30). Chapter 1 discusses the oddness of some of the categories in this list. In this chapter, the focus is on writing style.

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Figure 6.30: (Mar. 2002) ”Inconsistent label style ” simple nouns, noun phrases, proper names, sentences.

Some categories are simple nouns such as "Camera & Photo" and "Products." Others are sentences such as "See all our Night Owl gear." Another includes the word "titles." These links appear to have been written by different people, with no guidelines for how category links should be written, no management oversight over the result, and no recognition of the unprofessional impression such a hodgepodge of writing styles conveys to customers.

Inconsistent Capitalization

One aspect of writing style is how text is capitalized. A surprisingly large number of websites seem to pay no attention to capitalization. New text is often added without regard for what is already in the site.

Consider two examples from In one example, one of two similar labels uses title case, and the other uses sentence case (Figure 6.31[A]). In the other example, two similar links are capitalized differently (Figure 6.31[B]).

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Figure 6.31: (Jan. 2002) ”Inconsistent capitalization used in A ” labels on trip preference controls and B ” link text.

Similar inconsistency in capitalization style can be seen at zBuyer (Figure 6.32). These links were probably added at different times by different people, with no site stylebook for guidance, no management oversight, and no effort to check how already present links were capitalized. ZBuyer's parent company,, whose site does follow strict capitalization rules, should consider making those rules company-wide.

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Figure 6.32: (Feb. 2002) ”Inconsistent capitalization of link labels.

Avoiding the Blooper

The rules for achieving stylistic consistency in a website's text are as follows :

  • Develop or adopt a style guide. The Chicago Manual of Style (Grossman, 1993) is a classic style reference for print publishers. Although it lacks guidelines for many aspects of designing websites, its guidelines for text are just as applicable to the Web as to print media. A style guide designed specifically for the Web is the Yale Web Style Guide (Lynch and Horton, 2002), which is a good one to use if your organization has none of its own. It is available both as a printed book and on the Web at . Brinck, Gergle, and Wood (2001), in their chapter on writing for the Web, provide a brief example of a style guide.

  • Put a writer in charge of reviewing all text on the site. One person should oversee all the non- user - contributed text on the site, and that person should be a writer or editor. In addition to that person, a development manager should be responsible for general site quality and usability.

  • Look at what's already there when adding new text. Don't add new links, messages, commands, or instructions without paying attention to how similar ones already on the site are written.


Achieving consistency in the text on a website may seem like a trivial concern. However, it isn't. Committing this blooper ”or with the next one, Blooper 47: Typos and Grammos: Sloppy Writing ”conveys to users of your site that your organization is careless, inattentive to detail, and semiliterate. That's a bad impression to give if you want the visitor to become a customer, member, or repeated user.

The four styles of capitalizing text are as follows:

  • Sentence case: The initial word is capitalized, with everything else in lower case except proper names and acronyms.

  • Title Case: All words start with capital letters except articles (e.g., "a," "an," "the"), conjunctions (e.g., "or," "and"), and prepositions (e.g., "in," "after," "below").

  • lower case: All letters are in lower case.

  • UPPER CASE: All letters are in upper case.

Capitalization styles should be used consistently within a website. This doesn't mean all text should use the same capitalization style. Text serves many different roles: site title, page title, category heading, instruction, product description, textual content, link label, button label, error message, mouse-over tool-tip, and more. How text should be capitalized depends on the role it serves. Titles should of course be in title case. Prose text should be in sentence case.

However, many of the other roles for text have no predetermined capitalization style. For example, for navigation links and button labels, Web designers are free to define capitalization style rules however they like. The bottom line is that text that serves a particular role should be capitalized consistently.

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Web Bloopers. 60 Common Web Design Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
Web Bloopers: 60 Common Web Design Mistakes, and How to Avoid Them (Interactive Technologies)
ISBN: 1558608400
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 128
Authors: Jeff Johnson © 2008-2017.
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