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Grammar and punctuation

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

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.
  • If an acronym is better understood than the full text, use that.
  • Use all capital letters for initialisms.
  • Start with a capital letter for acronyms.
  • Capitalise single letters in expressions.
  • Provide full text explanations.
  • Consider providing a full explanation each time.

Abbreviations and acronyms in the Readability Guidelines

NZ or New Zealand

Both NZ and New Zealand are OK. 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.

For example:

  • ‘provide’ instead of ‘make provision for’
  • ‘apply’ instead of ‘make an application to’
  • ‘consider’ instead of ‘give due consideration to’.

List of alternatives for abstract nouns:

Nominalisations cheat sheet

Ampersands

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

For detailed advice about ampersands, see:

Ampersands in the Readability Guidelines

Apostrophes

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

No extra ‘s’ for plural nouns:

‘The businesses’ share prices have risen’ — not ‘the businesses’s share prices have risen’
‘Department of Internal Affairs’ address’ — not ‘Department of Internal Affairs’s address’.

Extra ‘s’ for singular nouns :

‘The business’ share prices have risen’ — not ‘the business’s share prices have risen’.

Brackets

Limit the use of brackets and avoid using them in the middle of a sentence.

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:

  • Capitalising whole words or phrases.
  • When to use sentence case.
  • Proper nouns — when it is ok to capitalise, for example titles of specific acts or bills.

Capital letters in the Readability Guidelines

Commas

Use the Oxford or serial comma only if it makes a list in a sentence easier to understand.

Example

This includes things like the family home, cars, furniture, and money like superannuation and wages.

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.

Em dash

You can use an em dash to separate 2 thoughts in a sentence. Avoid using an em dash to put a separate thought in the middle of a sentence.

Example

Do: Your application may be denied — you will not get a refund if it is.

Do not: Your application — which you complete online — may be denied.

En dash

The Readability Guidelines include detailed guidelines on the following topics:

  • Avoid using dashes whenever possible.
  • If you do use a dash, use an en-dash, not a hyphen or an em-dash.

Hyphens and dashes in the Readability Guidelines

Exclamation marks

Do not use exclamation marks.

Hyphens

The Readability Guidelines include detailed guidelines on the following topics:

  • Only use a hyphen if the word is confusing without it.
  • Do not use hyphens for time and date ranges, instead use ‘to’.
  • Make sure your hyphen usage is up to date.
  • Be consistent with your hyphen choices.

Hyphens and dashes in the Readability Guidelines

Percent

Use % — not ‘percent’ or ‘per cent’.

Plurals

Do not use brackets or ‘/s’ to refer to something that could be either singular or plural, like ‘Send your completed document(s) to Inland Revenue’.

Instead, use the plural, as this covers both possibilities: ‘Send your completed documents to Inland Revenue’.

Quotation marks

Use ‘curly’ quotation marks — not 'straight' quotation marks.

Curly quotation marks are easier to understand because the opening and closing marks look different.

Use single quotation marks for:

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

Use double quotation marks for:

  • a quote within a quote — for example, ‘The customer told us, “That was useful”, which was good to hear.’

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.

Referring to part of a web page

The location of an object can only be described if it’s in the main body of content on 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.

For example, ‘choose one of the links below.’

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.

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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