Grammar and punctuation
An alphabetised list of best practice and rules for punctuation and grammar on public sector websites.
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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.
For guidance on making abbreviations accessible, see Abbreviations — Web Accessibility Guidance project — NZ Government.
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
- make provision for
- make an application to
- give due consideration to.
Find a list of alternatives for abstract nouns:
Nominalisations cheat sheet — 4 Syllables
Use capital letters for initialisms and acronyms.
Write out acronyms in full the first time you reference them.
Acronyms — Readability Guidelines
For guidance on making acronyms accessible, see Abbreviations — Web Accessibility Guidance project — NZ Government.
Usually use ‘and’ instead of an ampersand (&), but there are some exceptions.
Ampersands — Readability Guidelines
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’
- Department of Internal Affairs’ address.
- The businesses’ share prices have risen.
- 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.
Examples of indicating possession in te reo
- The mana of Ngāti Mea.
- The mayor of Kaikōura.
- Ngāti Mea’s mana.
- Kaikōura’s mayor.
Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori Guidelines for Māori Language Orthography — ReoMaori.co.nz
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 ()
- provide the abbreviation for a term
- clarify a point
- enclose an aside or afterthought.
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 
- 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]
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
- Family Court
- NZ Super, rather than NZ Superannuation
- 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
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.
- 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.
- Capital letters — Readability Guidelines
- Style guide: A to Z capitalisation — GOV.UK
- Punctuation and capitalisation — Australian Government Style Manual
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
- Reo Māori Resources — ReoMaori.co.nz
- Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori Guidelines for Māori Language Orthography — ReoMaori.co.nz
- Te Aka Māori Dictionary
- Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori Māori Language Commission
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
- 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.
- 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.
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
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
- Easy Read translations
- A website’s Accessibility Statement
Avoid negative contractions.
Examples of negative contractions
Avoid conditional contractions.
Examples of conditional contractions
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.
- 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.
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.
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
Do not use exclamation marks.
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
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
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
Use % — not ‘percent’ or ‘per cent’.
Do not use round brackets to refer to something that could either be singular or plural — always use the plural instead, as this will cover each possibility.
- Use: Send your completed documents to Inland Revenue.
- Avoid: Send your completed document(s) to Inland Revenue.
Te reo Māori
Do not use ‘s’ after Māori words.
Examples of plural te reo Māori words
- Use: iwi, hapū, whānau, hui, wānanga
- Avoid: iwis, hapūs, whānaus, huis, wānangas
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 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:
- picture, or
- anything else that can be described on a web page.
Use: Choose one of the following links.
Avoid semi-colons or comma splices. Instead, write 2 sentences, or separate the clauses using an em dash with a space on either side.
Use 1 space after a full stop — do not use double spaces.
Te reo Māori words
Tips for using te reo Māori words in an English context in government content.
Māori words commonly used in NZ English
The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary tells us which Māori words are used in NZ English. These words are part of everyday language and do not need to be translated or added to a glossary of terms.
The way these words are used in English and their intended meaning may differ from their use in te reo Māori.
Examples of Māori words used in NZ English
- Aotearoa (New Zealand)
- aroha (love)
- haka (performance dance)
- hāngī (traditional feast prepared in earth oven)
- hīkoi (walk)
- hongi (to press noses in greeting)
- hui (gathering, meeting)
- iwi (tribe)
- kai (food)
- karakia (prayer)
- Kaumātua (Māori elder)
- kia ora (hello, greetings)
- Kōhanga Reo (language nest, Māori immersion pre-school for 0–4 years)
- mahi (work or activity)
- mana (prestige, reputation)
- marae (traditional Māori community centre)
- native animals like kiwi, tuatara, kea and moa, and flora like kauri and kowhai
- pā (traditional Māori hill fort)
- Pākehā (New Zealander of non-Māori descent, usually European)
- pounamu (greenstone)
- puku (stomach)
- tangata whenua (Māori people)
- taonga (treasured possessions or cultural items, anything precious)
- te reo Māori (the Māori language)
- waka (canoe, vehicle)
- whānau (family).
How to mark up code using the Māori language
Some people access text by listening to it as it’s read out by screen readers. For screen readers to correctly pronounce te reo Māori, where practicable, use mark up code to explicitly identify all te reo Māori content on a web page.
Read the Accessible language page to learn how to:
- set the main language of your page to te reo Māori
- mark up a sentence that includes a phrase in te reo Māori.
- Use macrons in the correct place to lengthen vowels — there are exceptions where double vowels are used instead of macrons in some words and dialects.
- Do not include macrons in email addresses, even if the user does, because most email clients cannot cope with them.
If you want to translate content from English to Māori, engage a licensed translator to translate your content or quality assure your own written content.
- Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori Translators and Interpreters Register
- Te Pūtahi Whakawhiti Reo The Translation Service — Te Tari Taiwhenua Department of Internal Affairs
When using te reo Māori and the English translation together, Māori should be placed first and the English translation after, for example, Te Tari Taiwhenua Department of Internal Affairs.
For Māori translations of a heading or title, follow the English language conventions, such as capitalising the same words.
Writing in te reo Māori
More guidance on writing in te reo Māori is woven throughout this grammar and punctuation section, including information on:
Resources to explore
- Te reo Māori
- Paekupu.co.nz — a dictionary based on the learning areas of the school curriculum, created for kura and developed by multiple language experts, and includes the subjects: literacy (te reo matatini), visual arts (toi ataata), music (puoro), maths (te reo pāngarau) and science (pūtaiao)
- Te Aka Māori Dictionary
- Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori Guidelines for Māori Language Orthography — ReoMaori.co.nz
- Te Tohu Reorua i te Reo Māori me te Reo Pākehā Māori-English Bilingual Signage: a guide for best practice — Te Puni Kōkiri Ministry of Māori Development
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