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Grammar and punctuation

An alphabetised list of best practice and rules for punctuation and grammar on public sector websites.

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Abbreviations

The Readability Guidelines include detailed guidelines on the following topics.

  • Do not use points or spaces.
  • Write out ‘for example’ and ‘that is’ in full.
  • Test with users, find out how familiar they are with your abbreviation.
  • Use all capital letters for initialisms, such as ‘BBC’.
  • Capitalise single letters in expressions.

Latin abbreviations

Avoid Latin abbreviation. Write them out in full instead.

Exceptions are okay for content in tables when there is not enough room to write them in full.

Examples

  • eg — for example
  • ie — in other words, that is
  • etc — and so on
  • et al — and others

Abbreviations — Readability Guidelines

NZ or New Zealand

Both NZ and New Zealand are okay. When using NZ, it's ‘an NZ law’ not ‘a NZ law’. This is because NZ is pronounced with a vowel sound — ‘en zed’.

Abstract nouns (nominalisations)

Abstract nouns are nouns formed from verbs.

They often end in: -ion, -ment, -al, -age, -ing, -ance, -ant, -dom -ence, -ity, -ism.

Use the verb rather than the abstract noun.

Examples

Use:

  • provide
  • apply
  • consider
Avoid:
  • make provision for
  • make an application to
  • give due consideration to

Find a list of alternatives for abstract nouns:

Nominalisations cheat sheet — 4 Syllables

Acronyms

Use capital letters for initialisms and acronyms.

Write out acronyms in full the first time you reference them.

Acronyms — Readability Guidelines

Ampersands

Usually use ‘and’ instead of an ampersand (&), but there are some exceptions.

Ampersands — Readability Guidelines

Apostrophes

Possessive nouns

If something belongs to 1 person or thing, put the apostrophe before the ‘s’.

Example

  • Use: The street’s parking options.
  • Avoid: The streets’ parking options.

If something belongs to more than 1 person or thing, then put the apostrophe after the ‘s’.

Example

  • Use: The streets’ parking options.
  • Avoid: The street’s parking options.

Plural and singular nouns — no extra ‘s’ 

You do not need to add an extra ‘s’ after nouns or names ending in ‘s’.

Exceptions are okay where the alternative reads more naturally.

Examples

Use:

  • Department of Internal Affairs’ address.
  • The businesses’ share prices have risen.
Avoid:
  • Department of Internal Affairs’s address.
  • The businesses’s share prices have risen.

Te reo Māori 

Do not use an apostrophe to indicate possession or belonging with places, tribes or entities. 

Example

  • Use: The the mayor of Kaikōura.
  • Avoid: Kaikōura’s mayor

Guidelines for Māori Language Orthography — Te Taura Whiri i te reo Maori (the Māori language commission) (PDF 0.25KB)

Brackets

Rounded brackets — limit the use of brackets and avoid using them in the middle of a sentence.

Square brackets — only use in direct quotes to add something the person did not say, for clarity or to provide essential information.

Example

“Though I live in Petone, I am originally from Mt Cook [Wellington].”

Brand names

Use capitals for proper nouns. Brand names are capitalised.

Use the brand’s own style for joining words in their name together.

Examples

  • Community Services Card
  • EFTPOS
  • Family Court
  • MoneyMates
  • NZ Super, rather than NZ Superannuation
  • RealMe
  • Student Allowance
  • SuperGold Card — caps and 2 words, not 3
  • Total Mobility scheme — lower case s
  • Veteran’s Pension
  • Veteran SuperGold Card
  • Work and Income, not WINZ
  • Working for Families Tax Credits

Capital letters

The Readability Guidelines on capital letters cover the following topics.

  • Do not capitalise whole words or phrases.
  • Use sentence case for headlines, subheads and buttons.
  • Proper nouns are an exception — for example, it’s okay to capitalise titles of specific acts or bills.

Capital letters — Readability Guidelines

Government or government

Use uppercase when referring to the government of the day. 

Use lowercase when referring to the government in general terms.

Examples

  • The Government will release its budget today.
  • Election day is when the people decide the next government.

Commas

Separate each item in a simple list with a comma, except the last 2 items — this is because ‘and’ does the work of a comma at the end of a list and the comma is not needed.

Use the Oxford or serial comma only if it adds clarity or makes a list in a sentence easier to understand. If the meaning of a sentence would be just as clear without commas, you do not need to use them.

Example

  • Use: New staff were set up with a device, mouse, keyboard and monitor. 
  • Avoid: New staff were set up with a device, mouse, keyboard, and monitor.

Contractions

Positive contractions

Why use positive contractions

Simple positive contractions may be fine to use — although the UK’s Readability Guidelines team says that this topic needs further testing.

Positive contractions make text feel more conversational and friendly. For native English speakers, contractions also make longer sentences easier to read.

Examples
  • you’ll
  • we’re
  • it’s

Why avoid using contractions

However, contractions can make sentences harder to read for people who:

  • have cognitive or intellectual impairments
  • have low literacy
  • have English as a second language
  • are Deaf (because English may be a second language).

Government information is for everyone and the above people are part of our audience.

So, when deciding whether it’s okay to use positive contractions, consider whether the content has a primary audience of people who find more complex English sentences hard to read.

Examples of when not to use contractions

Negative contractions

Avoid negative contractions.

Examples

  • don’t
  • can’t
  • haven’t

Conditional contractions

Avoid conditional contractions.

Examples

  • should’ve
  • would’ve
  • could’ve

It’s and its

It’s: ‘It’s’ is the shortened form of ‘it is’. 

Its: ‘Its’ is possessive and indicates something belonging to it.

Examples

  • It’s okay to walk your dog on this beach.
  • The dog wagged its tail.

You can read more about contractions in the Readability Guidelines — Content Design London.

Dashes

Em dash

You can use an em dash to:

  • separate 2 thoughts in a sentence
  • signal a change in tone
  • indicate the author of a quote.

Include a space before and after an em dash. If there are no spaces, a screen reader will read the words as if they were joined.

Em dashes add length and sometimes complexity to a sentence.

Consider alternatives, such as:

  • using commas around short, parenthetical clauses
  • separating content into more than one sentence.

Simple sentences — Readability Guidelines

Example

  • Your application may be denied — you will not get a refund if it is.
  • The clinics are for anyone delivering digital services — public or private sector.

En dash

You can use an en dash to indicate a range of data, such as sports results. It can also be used to show a relationship or connection between 2 distinct nouns.

Do not use an en dash for a range of time and dates. Use ‘to’ instead.

Examples

  • The All Blacks won 3–0.
  • The report focusses on the Māori–Crown relationship.
  • The Wellington–Auckland flight was delayed.

Find more information on when to use or avoid en dashes.

Dashes — Australian Government Style Manual

Exclamation marks

Do not use exclamation marks.

Full stops

Use full stops after web addresses and link text if they are at the end of a sentence.

Avoid full stops in:

  • page names
  • photo captions
  • headings
  • subheadings
  • initials.

Hyphens

Only use a hyphen for compound adjectives — for example, ‘well-known’.

Most compound nouns are commonly known and do not need a hyphen, but some still do — for example, ‘passer-by’.

Examples

Use:

  • online
  • cooperate
Avoid:
  • on-line
  • co-operate

Do not use a hyphen or other dash types for time and date ranges. Use ‘to’ instead.

Examples

  • 1 January to 1 February
  • 9am to 5pm

The Readability Guidelines includes more guidance on hyphens.

Hyphens and dashes — Readability Guidelines

Percent

Use % — not ‘percent’ or ‘per cent’.

Plurals

Examples

  • Use: Send your completed documents to Inland Revenue.
  • Avoid: Send your completed document(s) to Inland Revenue.

Quotation marks

Curly quotation marks

Use ‘curly’ quotation marks not 'straight' quotation marks. Curly quotes are known as smart quotes or typographer’s quotes. 

Curly quotation marks are easier to see because the opening and closing marks look different from each other.

Single quotation marks

Use single quotation marks for:

  • short quotations
  • titles of documents or publications — do not use italics to show words are part of a title.

Double quotation marks

Use double quotation marks for a quote within a quote.

When to use single or double quotation marks may depend on your organisation’s style. If you normally use double quotation marks for speech, then use single quotation marks for a quote within speech.

Example

‘The customer told us, “That was useful”, which was good to hear.’

Referring to part of a web page

Be specific when describing the location of an object. An object could be a:

  • link
  • button
  • content
  • picture, or
  • anything else that can be described on a web page.

Example

 Choose one of the following links.

Semi-colons

Avoid semi-colons or comma splices. Instead, write 2 sentences, or separate the clauses using an em dash with a space on either side.

Spaces 

Use 1 space after a full stop — do not use double spaces. 

Titles of documents or publications

Use sentence case for the titles of documents or publications. Use single quotation marks to separate document titles from their surrounding text unless the title is a link.

Example

The ‘Community resource kit’ will help you hold a discussion with your whānau, workmates or members of a community you’re part of.

Utility links and page information

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