Formatting Hyperlinks

Don't make Web address mistakes that can confuse your readers.

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #78

Grammar Girl here.

Today I'm going to talk about how to format Web addresses for print documents and websites.

URLs and Terminal Punctuation

A listener named Aileen recently asked how to deal with a Web address at the end of a sentence. Should she put the period or other terminal punctuation mark at the end of the sentence as she normally would, leave the period off so the reader doesn't mistakenly include it in the address, or do something funky such as put quotes around the Web address? 

Most of my books don't cover URL formatting, but The Chicago Manual of Style, which is probably the most comprehensive guide when it comes to formatting, says Web addresses don't need special treatment. So put the punctuation in just as you would if the sentence ended with a word or a number. [At least one online style guide agrees (1).]

Full URLs Versus Abbreviated URLs

Whether you should write out the full URL including the “http://” and “www” part is a matter of style (2). If you're including a Web address in a list of references and you're using a specific referencing style like Chicago, MLA, or APA, then you follow their specific recommendations; but if you're writing an essay or e-mail, then the style is up to you or your boss or teacher. Some people prefer to write out the entire address, whereas others prefer to write the shortest address possible that will still work when you type it into a Web browser. (Every browser I'm aware of will take you to the right page even if you leave off the “http://www.”) Just decide on a style and stick with it.

Active Links

Nancy in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, wanted to know if her students should make their URLs live hyperlinks.

If you're writing a document that will only be read in print, then there's no reason to make the link active; it will just show up underlined in the printout, which is unnecessary. I've included instructions at the bottom of this transcript on how to remove hyperlinks in word processing programs.

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 (3).

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 URLs that seem to go on forever with equal signs and question marks and lots of numbers.

The most important thing is that you should not use a 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, dot, 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 break at a period, make the break before the period so it starts the new line.

Lately, I've been using URL shortening services like TinyURL and urlTea as an alternative to wrapping long URLs. These services are very simple: you go to their website, paste in your long URL, and they spit out a much shorter URL that goes to the same page. [2015 UPDATE: bit.ly is now the dominant URL shortener.]

Click Here and Underlining

A few other points about hyperlinks and websites --

When you're turning words into links on a webpage, link the words that best describe what you are linking to instead of putting in self-conscious words like click here (4, 5). A site called “Web Content Design” made a point that I think is worth repeating: The text should make sense without the hyperlinks, which argues against adding words like click here.

Also, it's best to avoid underlining things for emphasis on websites because underlining marks hyperlinks. 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 for a link, so if you underline text, some people are going to think it's an active link (4).

That's all. Thanks for listening.

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1.“World Wide Web Style Guide,” Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering Website. May 5, 2006, http://www.eas.asu.edu/guidelines/style.html.
2.“World Wide Web Style,” University of Colorado at Boulder Style Guide. 2002, http://www.colorado.edu/Publications/styleguide/www.html.
3.“Internet, Web, and Other Post-Watergate Concerns,” The Chicago Manual of Style Online, Fifteenth Edition. http://urltea.com/1o0g.
4.“Writing Style,” Web Content Design Website. 2005, http://www.webcontentdesign.com/wcd/writing/Writing.asp.
5.Nielsen, J. “Terms to Avoid,” Writing for the Web. Santa Clara: Sun Microsystems, http://www.sun.com/980713/webwriting/wftw7.html.

Additional Information

How to remove the active hyperlink in an Open Office document on a PC or a Mac:

1. Highlight the text.
2. In the Format menu, choose Character (or hit the key sequence Alt-O-H on a PC).
3. In the Hyperlink tab, delete any text in the URL box.
4. Hit OK.

How to remove the active hyperlink in an MS Word document on a PC or a Mac:

1. Put your cursor anywhere in the link.
2. Press Control-K (Command-K for a Mac) to bring up the Edit Hyperlink menu.
3. Click Remove Link in the bottom left corner of the menu.

HP Laptop Keyboard image, David Precious at Flickr. CC BY 2.0.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.