Monday, 1 September 2014

Ditching italic? I predict a riot (Public Health England's move to GOV.UK)

Ever tried telling a scientist they can't use italics for Latin* names? I mean the scientific names of bacteria like Escherichia coli, Clostridium difficile or Staphylococcus aureus.

You cannot be serious

"No italics? You cannot be serious. That's 100 years of scientific history down the drain," said a disbelieving scientist at Public Health England (PHE), a government agency that aims to keep the nation safe from contagious diseases.

Luckily for me, the scientist later mellowed. Overall, she realised her content looked much better on GOV.UK. It was cleaner, more easily maintainable and more findable. And there's a consistency to content that's lacking on the old website,

But other scientists remain unhappy, threatening to march on Holborn, where the keepers of the GOV.UK style guide hang out. Or at least raise a zendesk ticket saying 'Without italics, it's wrong. Scientists and medics won't recognise the words.'

Please, please tell me now

Personally, I don't much care for italics but I couldn't find anything in the GOV.UK style guide to explain why italics were bad.

The Economist style guide and Guardian style guide both use italics for Latin names, but their style guides are for print not web.


But gut feeling tells me italics are distracting and difficult to read. Slanty, swirly, dizzy-making, migraine-inducing. 

This summer at PHE I didn't have time to google 'italics bad why?' as we were frantically frontloading titles and (trying to) write a plain(ish) English summary for some of the most niche scientific material you'll ever come across. Niche but essential for the medical professionals in that niche.

So now my contract has finished, I've had time to fire up google. And yes, avoiding italics is to do with accessibility. People who are dyslexic will struggle with italicised text.

Whatever next?

This week PHE finishes cleaning and restructuring its most popular content ('the cliff', in GOV.UK speak) and moving it to GOV.UK. Here's Clostridium difficile.

It's 'cleaning, restructuring and moving' rather than 'rewriting content based around user needs'. In the real world there just wasn't time to rewrite and get sign-off by italics and upper case-loving content owners.

Rewriting content around user needs will happen over the next year or so. But already content is so much cleaner and more findable.

Don't mess with E. coli

Fingers crossed that the keeper of the GOV.UK style guide will at least let scientists keep the initial capital letter for Escherichia coli (E. coli). If not, I predict a riot!

* Strictly speaking, rather than 'Latin names' we should call them 'genus and species names' or 'binomial nomenclature' (catchy, huh?). Why? Because the Latin names are not all Latin. Some are a mixture of Latin and Greek (Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium difficile) and some are Latinised forms of people's names - Escherichia coli's named after a 19th century German doctor, Theodor Escherich.

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