Who Knows Their WHO Style?

The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on the World Health Organization (WHO), an intergovernmental organization that works worldwide to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable. As part of their work, WHO publishes a range of documents, from international health standards, to “situation reports” describing progress in fighting a disease, to advice for the public on staying safe and healthy.

It’s no surprise that WHO, an agency of the United Nations, relies heavily on United Nations style in its documentation. But that’s heavily, not exclusively. WHO has its own style and an extensive style guide to go with it.

If you’re diving into WHO style for the first time, prepare yourself: WHO style is complex. The spelling rules alone are enough to make your head spin, and it can feel as though nearly every rule comes with at least one exception. For example, you italicize the Latin names of genera, species, and subspecies (Salmonella dublin) … except when you don’t (when referring to plain ol’ “salmonella”). You use British spelling for disease names and other medical terms (anaesthesia, gynaecology) … except when you don’t (estrogen, fetus).

Confused yet? Thank goodness WHO style is built into PerfectIt. That means that most spellings that deviate from WHO style will be flagged the second you run PerfectIt, greatly minimizing the number of style points you need to memorize and/or look up.

That said, mastery of the guide is still essential. Here’s an overview of what you can expect to learn when you dive into its 70+ pages.

Medical and Scientific Terms

As you might expect, the WHO style guide provides extensive guidance on terms and topics related to health. For editors working in the United States, a surprise will be that the AMA Manual of Style is never referenced. Here’s what you’ll use instead.

Medical Terminology

Guidance on how to handle various types of medical terminology is sprinkled throughout the guide. Chapter 1 provides information on medical terms, the generic names of drugs, and medicines and pesticides. Chapter 2 notes that the spelling of disease names follows British rather than North American usage (with a number of exceptions). Chapter 3 provides a list of medical abbreviations and a list of symbols commonly used in the medical community. And so on.

This is a lot to parse through. If you’re already a trained medical editor, though, there’s one point of comfort. You likely already have subscriptions to the medical dictionaries WHO recommends as its key backup resources—Dorland’s or Stedman’s. You can refer to these resources for any terms that aren’t listed in the WHO guide.

As always, watch out for exceptions—for example, when referring to a certain type of genomic testing, WHO recommends capitalizing “Southern blot” but lowercasing northern, eastern, and western blot. Stedman’s, in contrast, capitalizes the first word in all of these terms.

Chemical Terminology

Rules regarding chemical names follow International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) rules, as interpreted by the American Chemical Society (ACS). Thus, if you’re handling manuscripts with a lot of chemical content, you may also need a subscription to the digital-only ACS Guide to Scholarly Communication. That guide will tell you why the “N” in “N-ethylaniline” is italicized, for example, while the one in “N-acetylation” is not.

Mathematical and Statistical Terminology

The WHO guide includes basic advice on handling mathematical matter: use italics for variables and certain physical constants but Roman for operators, abbreviations, and representations of pure numbers. For most other questions, you’ll want to dive into yet more outside resources.

The WHO guide suggests either Chicago Manual of Style or Scientific Style and Format (aka the CSE Manual). If you’re using Chicago, check Chapter 12, Mathematics in Type, to get most of your questions answered. If you’re using CSE, try Chapter 12, Numbers, Units, Mathematical Expressions, and Statistics.

Geographic Designations and Regions

Because WHO is an international organization, its documents will often refer to different regions and nations, as well as to Member States and Associate Members of WHO. And WHO considers correct treatment of these names essential, calling it “perhaps the most important part of WHO style.”

Luckily, there’s clear guidance on how to handle these terms:

  • Chapter 1 provides guidelines on WHO entities (e.g., WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean), structures (e.g., African Region; Region of the Americas), and governing bodies (e.g., the World Health Assembly).
  • Table 2 in Chapter 1 includes a table of sensitive geographical designations and how to treat them. For example, do not refer to Côte d’Ivoire as “Ivory Coast” and always use “Republic of Korea” instead of “South Korea.”
  • Annex 1 provides a table listing the full name and short name of WHO Member States (e.g., Republic of Cyprus; Cyprus), as well as the capital city and proper adjective for the nation’s people (e.g., Nicosia; Cypriot).
  • Annex 2 provides a list of world cities most often found in WHO documents. Both the English/approved name of the city is listed (e.g., Bangkok) as well as the local or other name (e.g., Krung Thep).

When writing about various countries and their health policies, writers are asked to exercise an abundance of caution. They should “be alert to potentially controversial issues and avoid statements that may offend Member States.” This caution extends both to criticizing the workings of particular governments or national health systems and to using terms such as “underdeveloped countries” or “Third World” that can be considered offensive.

References and Bibliographies

Chapter 6 in the WHO style manual provides detailed guidance on references and bibliographies. Either the numerical or Harvard referencing systems are acceptable, although numerical is preferred. As with any document, choose one or the other—don’t jump between both.

Anyone who’s ever edited references will be thankful for the many examples the WHO guide provides. Samples of just about everything you’d want to cite are included: articles, books, book chapters, meeting reports, podcasts, webpages... the list goes on. There’s also guidance on where in your document reference lists and bibliographies should fall, and how to know which types of citations should go on which type of list.

Spot-On Spelling

WHO doesn’t play favorites when it comes to spelling. According to the style guide, “Because WHO style is intended to make WHO information products accessible by all users of English, it does not follow any single set of national practices in handling English. It therefore uses a mix of British and North American spelling, which means that, no matter where staff learned their English spelling, all must change some of their habits.”

In case you think you couldn’t possibly have read that correctly—you did. WHO style jumps between UK and US spelling. If this antagonizes you, please analyse your thinking. (Note the conflicting use of the “-ze” and “-se” endings in this sentence. It’s correct according to WHO style.)

Despite this deliberate use of two spelling systems, the WHO guide recommends that you set your base language in Word to UK English. To do this in Microsoft Word, go to the Review ribbon, click Language, then click Set Proofing Language. Choose “English (United Kingdom)” and make sure the box next to “Do not check spelling or grammar” is empty.

For further spelling guidance, consult the WHO style manual’s sections on:

  • The spelling of medical terms (generally use British spelling, with some exceptions)
  • How to treat verbs ending in -ize, -ise, and -yse
  • How to treat common prefixes and suffixes, including when to double consonants with suffixes
  • When to use initial capitals for titles, geographic names, trade names, and other key terms.

Many words are also listed in Annex 3, the WHO Spelling List. And once again, all of the terms listed explicitly in the WHO guide are included in PerfectIt’s WHO style check.

Proper Punctuation

Chapter 5 of the WHO guide addresses the main punctuation issues you would expect in any style guide: correct use of commas, when to use brackets vs. parentheses, and so forth. A few standout items to be aware of:

  • Use a serial comma only when needed for clarity.
  • Omit periods after courtesy titles such as Dr, Mr, or Ms (this will look normal to editors in much of the world; those in the United States, however, should take note).
  • Use a lowercase letter in the first word starting a full sentence that follows a colon (e.g., “Rich countries could afford the intervention: poor countries could not.”).
  • When setting off parenthetical expressions, replace em dashes with en dashes, and add a space on each side (e.g., “Many countries – actually, most countries – responded quickly to the emergency request.”).

Know Your Numbers

WHO style makes life simple if you’re editing websites: always express numbers in numerals. In other words, you’d write about “The 3 WHO Member States and the 4 health plans they are exploring.”

For all other publications, here are a few key rules:

  • Use figures for numbers in groups, exhibits and tables, ranges, and with units of measurement.
  • In running text, use words for numbers zero to nine and use numerals for numbers 10 and higher (but always use numerals for certain types of numbers, such as ages, decades, and units of measurement).
  • If a number is more than four digits long, insert a nonbreaking space (Control + Shift + Spacebar) before every set of three digits, counting from the right or left of the decimal point. For example, using numerals, 10 million would be expressed as 10 000 000 (with the nonbreaking space taking the place of the comma that US editors will be familiar with).
  • When writing dates, use the date followed by the month followed by the year (e.g., 3 November 2020).
  • When expressing time, use the 24-hour clock (e.g., 06:00, 12:00, 16:30).
  • When describing currency, place the amount of money before the currency name when the name is written in full, but after the abbreviation or symbol when that is used (200 euros, but £200).
  • Give temperature in degrees Celsius.

Note that some information on handling units of measurement (e.g., 120 mmHg, 14 g/kg per day) is included in Chapter 3, Abbreviations and Symbols. And as mentioned previously, if you need guidance on handling complex mathematical formulations, WHO directs you to Scientific Style and Format.

PerfectIt Can Help

This article has provided some basic guidance for tackling WHO Style, but there’s much more detail included in the guide itself. Whether you’re familiar with the style or new to it, it helps to make use of the WHO Style that’s built into PerfectIt.

One click will flag all kinds of deviations from WHO style—from “drunk driving” (should be “drunk–driving,” with an en dash), to “World War I” (should be “First World War”), to Chagas’ disease (should be “Chagas disease,” sans apostrophe). Moreover, it will flag all deviations from WHO’s complex spelling rules. That means you don’t have to memorize the fact that “herpesvirus” is one word, whereas “cowpox virus” is two. PerfectIt remembers for you.

PerfectIt catches other consistency errors too. It will:

  • Flag inconsistent spelling, capitalization, and hyphenation—even for terms not included in WHO style.
  • Ensure abbreviations are spelled out at first reference and flag ones that have been used without definition.
  • Check capitalization of headings (generally set in sentence case in WHO style).
  • Enforce consistent punctuation and capitalization in bulleted lists.
  • Show whether figures and tables appear in the correct order, and whether all have headings.

Simply put, using PerfectIt is like having your own secret quality control department; one that checks details of WHO style more quickly and consistently than you ever could yourself. When you’re working on WHO documents, this is particularly important. PerfectIt lets you focus on your true mission as an editor: helping WHO create clear, clean documents that get essential safety information to the public and get important technical guidelines to health care workers worldwide. Click to get a free trial of PerfectIt today.

Check Your Text Faster with PerfectIt