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How to Format URLs in Text

What are these strange beasts?

By
Mignon Fogarty,,
September 5, 2008

Today's topic is how to treat URLs when you have to use them in text.

Web addresses are strange beasts; they seem more like equations or long numbers than words. All the rules for how to handle uniform resource locators (or URLs) in documents are matters of style, but some styles make more sense than others.

URLs and Terminal Punctuation

URLs always have internal periods and are often scattered with other punctuation marks too, so what do you do when one shows up at the end of a sentence? Should you include the period or other terminal punctuation mark at the end of the sentence as you normally would, leave off the period so the reader doesn't mistakenly include it in the address, or do something funky such as put quotes around the Web address? As you're weighing your options, first consider whether you are writing for print or the Web.

Print

If you're writing for print, Web addresses don't need special treatment. Put the period, question mark, or exclamation point at the end of the sentence just as you would if the sentence ended with a word or a number. You may choose to highlight the URL in some way, such as making it bold or blue, but it isn't necessary.

Online

When you're writing a URL on a blog, in an e-mail program, or in some other online environment and the link will be active, you have to be sure the terminal punctuation won't be included in the address when someone clicks on it or quickly copies it and pastes it into their browser. Many e-mail and instant messaging programs, for example, automatically make everything following http:// active until they reach a space -- meaning the terminal punctuation will be included in the address when someone clicks on it, resulting in a broken link. Thus, unless you can control exactly how the address will be rendered, it's best to leave off the terminal punctuation or rewrite the sentence so the URL doesn't come at the end.

I know! I can hear some of you gasping in horror now, and it makes me crazy to leave off the punctuation too, but I've had enough people complain that a link I posted or sent them didn't work, that I've decided functionality beats traditional sentence structure. The purpose of good writing is to make things as clear as possible for your reader, so I believe the most important thing is to make sure the link you are sending or posting actually works. As I said, these are just style recommendations, so if you can't deal with leaving off the punctuation, you don't have to. Just make sure you use a consistent style and, again, try to rewrite the sentence so the URL doesn't come at the end. That's the best solution.

The Full Monty: Full URLs Versus Abbreviated URLs

Now, what about abbreviating the address? Some people prefer to write out the entire address including the http:// and www parts, whereas other people prefer to write the shortest address that will still work when you type it into a Web browser. Whether you should write out the full URL is also a matter of style, but for the reasons that follow, I recommend writing out the complete address every time.

Most websites will come up in a browser if you leave off the http://www, but not all websites will. If you opt to use an abbreviated address, always test it in a browser first; don't assume it will work.

Not every address uses www either. For example, the direct Grammar Girl Web address is http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com. It's best to include the http:// in this kind of address because people may be confused if you just write grammar.quickanddirtytips.com and may try to insert a www in front of it.
 
The bottom line is that although an abbreviated address may look smoother and more tech savvy, it's not going to work every time, so you're going to end up writing the http://www sometimes. Since you have to write it sometimes, it makes your style more consistent to use it all the time.

Web Bonus

As I was finishing this script, I realized that I violate my own rule when I read Web addresses in the show. I always truncate the address whenever possible. I do it because it seems painfully tedious to say "h-t-t-p-colon-slash-slash-w-w-w-dot." Although reading a URL on a page doesn't take a lot of extra work for the reader, forcing listeners to sit through reading a full URL out loud seems almost cruel. I support a different style for scripts than I do for printed or online documents.

[[AdMiddle]Long URLs

The next problem you are likely to encounter is what to do with a long URL. You know what I mean: one of those dynamically generated URLs that seem to go on forever with equal signs and question marks and lots of numbers.

The most important thing is that if you have to break a URL across two lines, don't insert an extra hyphen at the line break. That will definitely confuse people because it's common for URLs to have internal hyphens. And if there is a hyphen in the address, don't make the line break right after it; that will confuse people because they won't know whether you are improperly inserting a hyphen to mark the break or the hyphen is part of the address.

Instead, if you have to wrap the URL to a new line, find a natural break like a slash, number sign, or other symbol. Again, use common sense: don't break a URL right after a period or readers might think the period marks the end of the sentence. If you must break at a period, make the break before the period so it starts the new line. 

Active Links

Some word processing programs annoyingly make a link active when you type the full address. I find that almost as annoying as Clippy, the old Microsoft pop-up helper. If your document will be read only in print, there's no reason to make the link active; it'll just show up underlined in the printout, which is unnecessary. Different word processing programs have different ways of removing the link, but it is always possible.

On the other hand, if your document will be on the Web or in an e-mail message, do make the link clickable so it's easier for your readers to visit the page.

Click Here and Underlining

Finally, when you're turning words into links on a Web page, link the words that best describe what you are linking to. For example, link the words "Grammar Girl Homepage" instead of linking generic words such as "click here." Using meaningful link text also helps your site rank well in search engines and makes it easier for people with visual impairments to navigate your site. (They may be using software that only reads the link text to them.)

Also, it's best to avoid underlining things for emphasis on websites because underlining is the style for hyperlinks on the Web. I know that it's possible to make links any style you want if you fiddle with the code, but underlining is the default style, so if you underline text, some people will think it's an active link.

Administrative

This episode was adapted from my print book, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
 

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