COVID-19 Language Guide

Using consistent language and tone in content about COVID-19 across Commonwealth agencies will add credibility and build trust.

As the situation with the coronavirus rapidly evolves, it is important that all state agencies are on the same page as to the words we use, how and when we use them, and our tone. The voice of Mass.gov is knowledgeable, humble, and informative, and above all aims to put constituents first.

It is important to keep this in mind in times of stress, in order to maintain public trust and to not incite undue panic. When choosing language, we recommend agencies follow the lead of the Department of Public Health, the Governor’s office, and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

Here are some frequently-used terms about the coronavirus and COVID-19, their definitions, and grammar rules to be aware of.

The coronavirus ≠ COVID-19

People often refer to the coronavirus and COVID-19 interchangeably, but these terms actually refer to two different things. Viruses cause diseases, and diseases cause symptoms and conditions within individuals. For example, the virus HIV causes the disease AIDS. In this case, the coronavirus, a family of viruses, causes COVID-19, a singular disease (COVID-19 stands for “coronavirus disease 2019”). It is inaccurate to label the coronavirus as a disease, or COVID-19 as a virus. Additionally, the coronavirus should not be referred to without a “the” article, except in direct quotes or in titles.

Outbreak ≠ Epidemic ≠ Pandemic

An outbreak is the sudden rise in cases of a disease in a specific place. An epidemic is the rapid spreading of disease in a certain population or geographic region. A sustained outbreak may signal the emergence of an epidemic. A pandemic is an epidemic that has spread worldwide. We should only use these terms if they have already been or are being used by health officials. COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Incubation period ≠ Quarantine ≠ Isolation ≠ Social Distancing

An incubation period is the time between infection and the appearance of symptoms of the illness. The incubation period for COVID-19 is thought to be up to 2 weeks. A quarantine is the restriction of movement for healthy people who may have been exposed to an infection, to see if they become ill during the disease’s incubation period. If quarantined people do exhibit symptoms, they may be placed into isolation: The separation of sick people from healthy people, to prevent the spread of disease.

Social distancing, which Massachusetts residents have been advised to observe, is the effort to limit contact with the outside world and each other in order to limit the spread of the disease. Residents are advised to remain in their homes whenever possible, avoid gathering in groups, and maintain at least 6 feet of distance between themselves and others.

Some other random notes to consider:

  • Hand-washing has a hyphen

  • Define institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the World Health Organization (WHO) on first reference. Acronyms are acceptable on second reference and beyond.

  • AP Style is to say “personal protective equipment,” and to avoid the acronym “PPE.”

  • Cancel, canceled, and canceling all have 1 “L.” Cancellation has 2.

  • Antiseptics kill germs on living things. Disinfectants kill germs on objects and surfaces.

These are adjectives:

  • Lockdown

  • Shelter-in-place

  • Stay-at-home

These are verbs:

  • Lock down

  • Shelter in place

  • Stay at home