Frequently Asked Questions

Organizations make choices about word usage, spelling, punctuation, and use of acronyms (among other things) to make content readable and professional. Sometimes these choices are governed by strict rules of grammar and punctuation. Other times the choices are a matter of editorial judgment.

Most organizations choose from one of several standard style books to guide writers and editors in making editorial choices. The Urban Institute uses the Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition), though we also incorporate elements of AP, Bluebook, and CBO style.

The Urban style guide supplements these references and addresses points on which our style differs from Chicago and Merriam-Webster’s. In some cases, the style guide indicates which of several options presented by Chicago or Merriam-Webster’s is used in Urban publications.


This question takes many forms, but often it involves discrepancies in whether a phrase is hyphenated or left open, a number is expressed through words or a numeral, or different forms of a word are capitalized. The short answer is that it all depends on context, and consistency doesn’t necessarily mean always treating a word or phrase exactly the same in all contexts.

For example, some phrases are hyphenated when they appear before a noun, acting as a unit modifier, but left open when appearing after a noun or on their own (She is a part-time worker; she works part time). Another common example occurs with numbers: Urban style in most instances is to spell out zero through nine and use numerals for 10 or greater. But if just one of several numbers in proximity takes a numeral, all similar numbers in that context should take a numeral (We raised 4 goats, 13 chickens, and 9 pigs). Although four and nine would be spelled out in most other instances in a document, they are written numerically there for consistency within the immediate context.

If you’re unsure about whether a style choice is consistent, just ask! We’d be happy to explain the rule and our reasoning or correct the error.

They’re both. American English is built on certain rules: subjects and verbs must agree, periods go at the end of sentences, and so on. Some usage rules evolve; splitting an infinitive (to boldly go) and starting a sentence with And or But are no longer strictly prohibited, as long as they’re done correctly. And any rule can and should be broken if following it would hinder or confuse the reader.

But an editor’s changes aren’t just suggestions, either. Organizations use editorial standards to ensure consistency and quality across products, and those standards need to be enforced if they’re to be useful. Moreover, editorial choices are a means to an end: consistency and thoughtfulness in what may seem like inconsequential details bolsters your credibility as an author and elevates Urban’s reputation.

Most of Urban’s style rules are prescribed explicitly by the Chicago Manual of Style or Merriam Webster’s. The remainder are choices the editors have made from among equally valid or grammatical options.

Yes. We want editorial rules to reflect best practices for clarity and efficacy in writing along with the needs of Urban audiences and authors; we will glady change rules in pursuit of those goals. However, we consider many factors when making style changes, and that generally means one publication’s need or one author’s preference isn’t enough for an Institute-wide shift. We welcome feedback on what style rules contradict your experience with a subject or hinder a reader’s understanding. Once we have an evidence base showing that a rule isn’t meeting authors’ needs, we’ll address it.

Ideally, all Urban products would follow Urban editorial style, be produced in Urban templates, and uphold the Urban brand. However, we respect your relationships with your funders; there’s some nuance to the intersection of ownership, partnership, branding, and style, and often it makes sense or simply is necessary to deviate from standard Urban practices to fulfill contractual obligations or improve a product.

If your funder is publishing the products or if you have agreed in the contract/grant to use a funder’s style and format, let us know as early as possible. Send us your funder’s guidance, and we’ll do our best to incorporate it in your products. We will rely on you to remind us and to forward any style updates from your funder. Because we will be less familiar with your funder’s style than Urban’s, the editing may take longer or be less extensive.

Yes, and you have a couple of options for doing so. If you think the material is relevant to several centers or Urban at large, you can request an addition to the main style guide. If the material tends to appear in publications for one research area, we can help you set up and maintain a center-specific style guide appendix (similar to HFPC’s). There, we can record style choices concerning fine-grain or esoteric words and phrases. We also can create a funder style guide (if your funder doesn’t have one), where we keep track of how different funders prefer we style different pieces of text.

All our style sources cascade downward in specificity. At the highest and broadest level, sources like the Chicago Manual and the Urban style guide prescribe sweeping rules about grammar, punctuation, and usage. Center appendices and funder style guides address specific terms of industry, programs, and technical phrases. At the lowest and finest level are the style sheets we create for almost all individual editorial projects, where we can track how we abbreviate, hyphenate, capitalize, and spell.


To understand why our work takes the time that it does, it’s useful to know what it entails: it’s a lot more than simply reading through the document. This document provides a rough overview of three levels of editing and the types of changes usually made at each level.

Most editorial work occurs at a rate of between three and eight manuscript pages per hour (a manuscript page is measured as 250 words). Editing and formatting figures and tables (5–25 minutes each, depending on complexity) and confirming or adding details to citations can quickly add hours to the estimate. These numbers may seem high, and to some extent they are; we think it’s better to estimate based on the worst-case scenario (a dense, complex text with many inconsistencies and errors to fix) and potentially end up returning an assignment early and under budget.

Another element to consider is your editor’s workload. Each Urban editor manages roughly a dozen projects at a time. Though the initial edit of your brief may require only, say, eight hours, an editor is unlikely to have the next eight hours completely free for your project unless you scheduled the work weeks in advance. He or she may need a few days or even a week to begin work on your project because of other commitments (bear in mind Urban’s editor-to-researcher ratio is 1:50). We have freelancers on call for peak periods to minimize delays.

The best thing you can do for your project is come to us as early as possible. We can work with any budget and time constraints you have to figure out the best plan for your publication. If necessary we can block off time to dedicate to your project and work through it quickly.

We try our best to provide accurate estimates from the start, but they are still estimates. Most often, timelines and budgets change when a publication we receive is longer than we anticipated (remember, as mentioned in the previous response, we measure pages differently than you do). Other times, the publication may be more complex than anticipated: dense or complicated text, many tables and figures, numerous references and notes, or appendixes could all increase our work estimate once we receive the file.

To avoid unpleasant surprises, send us clear, accurate information as early as possible. Word counts give us a better sense of length than page counts, and even rough ideas of the number of tables, figures, citations, and appendixes can help us fine-tune our estimates so that if they do change, it won’t be by too much.


This style guide was written and edited by Fiona Blackshaw, Elizabeth Forney, David Hinson, Michael Marazzi, and Daniel Matos. It was formatted by Michael Marazzi, based on a design by Ben Chartoff and Tim Meko.

We are grateful for the insights of our researcher style group, which included Gina Adams, Pam Blumenthal, Stan Dorn, Lionel Foster, Signe-Mary McKernan, Colleen Owens, Kate Villarreal, Roberton Williams, and Mary Winkler.

Have a question or looking for more help? Contact Michael Marazzi or Fiona Blackshaw.

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