Skip to main content

Grammar and punctuation

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

Sign up for notifications

Join the mailing list to get notifications of updates to the content design guidance.

Just email the team at info@digital.govt.nz.

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 of abbreviations

  • 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 of verbs that replace abstract nouns

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 with singular possessive noun

  • 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 with plural possessive noun

  • 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 with nouns ending in ‘s’

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 of indicating possession in te reo

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

Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori Guidelines for Māori Language Orthography — ReoMaori.co.nz

Brackets

This guidance is for 2 of the 4 types of brackets — they are not interchangeable and each is used in specific contexts.

In general writing, it’s important not to overuse brackets — you can often avoid them by redesigning the sentence. If you need to use brackets, make sure you use the correct ones for the context.

Round brackets or parentheses ()

Use to:

  • provide the abbreviation for a term
  • clarify a point 
  • enclose an aside or afterthought.
Except for abbreviations, try to place content in round brackets at the end of a sentence.

Examples of round brackets

  • The European Union (EU) passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018.
  • When handling personal and collective information, engaging with Māori contributes to improving people’s understanding of te ao Māori (Māori world views).
  • “I don’t believe they're telling the truth (they never do).”

Square brackets []

Use to:

  • insert an explanation in a direct quotation
  • indicate something that’s been incorrectly written in a direct quotation
  • add some text within a direct quotation in order to clarify something
  • signal omitted text from a direct quotation
  • modify a direct quotation so that it fits grammatically within the surrounding text
  • add sounds, responses and reactions that are not words in an interview or video transcription.

Examples of square brackets

  • “Though she lives in Petone, she is originally from Mount Cook [Wellington].”
  • “They made there [sic] beds.”
  • “It [the tornedo] is going to hit our town!”
  • “He screams [...] when he does not get his way.”
  • “He scream[ed] the house down when he [did] not get his way.”
  • “If you say so.” [shrugs]

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 of proper nouns

  • 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

Capitalise the first word in a sentence and use lower case for all other words, except for proper nouns. This is called sentence case. Use sentence case for headings, titles, subheadings and labels.

Do not capitalise whole words or phrases, as they are hard to read.

Capitalise proper nouns

Use initial capital letters, or title case, for proper nouns. Proper nouns are names for an individual person, place, thing or organisation.

Use capitals for such things as:

  • legislation — titles of specific acts and bills, for example, the Privacy Act 2020 and Plain Language Bill
  • Cabinet, when referring to the government‘s Cabinet Office
  • Crown, when referring to the government
  • Government, when referring to the government of the day, and lower case for government when it is generic, for example, previous governments and government departments
  • Member of Parliament, when referring to a specific person or as a substitute for that person’s name
  • Minister, when referring to a specific minister, for example, Minister for the Digital Economy and Communications.

Examples 

  • Te Whatu Ora is a Crown entity that replaces the 20 district health boards.
  • The Government will release its budget today.
  • Election day is when the people decide the next government.
  • The Self-contained Motor Vehicle Legislation Bill will now go through the parliamentary process.
  • The Bill is expected to be introduced to Parliament in late 2022.

Capitals in te reo Māori

As in English, use title case for proper nouns in te reo Māori — the first letter of the name is capitalised including ‘Te’ if that is the first word of the proper noun. The first letter of the next word is also capitalised.

The only other parts of a name to have initial capitals are those that are proper names — as in English, it’s uncommon to capitalise the particles such as ‘a’ ‘and’, ‘the’, ‘te’, etc.

Examples of te reo Māori proper nouns and titles

  • Te Tiriti o Waitangi — Treaty of Waitangi
  • Kā Tiritiri-o-te-Moana — Southern Alps
  • Te Upoko-o-te-Ika-a-Māui — Wellington region
  • Te Wiki o te Reo Māori — Māori language week
  • Ngāi Tahu — iwi, hapū and other whānau groups

When a title is used in front of a personal name, it is capitalised, for example, Tā [Sir] Tipene O’Regan and Kahurangi [Dame] Tariana Turia.

Examples of when and when not to capitalise ‘Māori’

The word ‘Māori’ has a capital when it refers to the people and the language, used as a noun or an adjective, for example:

  • the Māori language
  • te reo Māori
  • Māori politicians
  • Māori statistics
  • tamariki Māori
  • wāhine Māori
  • tikanga Māori.

When ‘māori’ is used meaning ‘ordinary or natural’ it is not capitalised, for example:

  • wai māori — still (plain) water
  • rongoā māori — natural remedy
  • rākau māori — native tree.

More information on te reo Māori

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.

Examples of when and when not to use the Oxford comma

  • Use:
    • New staff were set up with a device, mouse, keyboard and monitor.
    • New staff were set up with a device, mouse, keyboard and monitor, and assistive technology in some cases. 
  • Avoid:
    • New staff were set up with a device, mouse, keyboard, and monitor.
    • New staff were set up with a device, mouse, keyboard and monitor and assistive technology in some cases. 

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 of positive contractions

  • 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 of negative contractions

  • don’t
  • can’t
  • haven’t

Conditional contractions

Avoid conditional contractions.

Examples of conditional contractions

  • 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

Examples of em dash

  • 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 of en dash

  • 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 of words that do not need a hyphen

Use:

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

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

Examples of date and time ranges

  • 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.

Examples of double quotation marks

‘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

 Use: 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 of using single quote marks to refer to a document title

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

Was this page helpful?
Thanks, do you want to tell us more?

Do not enter personal information. All fields are optional.

Last updated