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Plain English writing guide

In general, when writing:

  • think before you write
  • check before you send
  • read your material aloud before sending it to someone else
  • if in doubt, ask
  • write with the reader in mind.
Use active voice rather than passive
Example: CDG will monitor performance [active].
Not: Performance will be monitored by CDG [passive].

Use clear and concise language
Example: Official information includes emails, annotations on documents, file notes, meeting notes and notes of telephone conversations.
Not: When you type an email, make annotations on documents, make file notes, take meeting notes and make notes of telephone conversations, remember that this is all official information.

Make formal writing a habit
Get into the habit of writing in a formal style (including in emails) and of referring to people by their formal titles. All the writing and typing you do in the course of your work is official information (see below).

metaphors such as “at the end of the day”
phrase verbs such as “put up with” (use “tolerate”)
“may,” “should,” “will,” “could,” “might” unless you use them deliberately.

Minimise use of jargon
Where jargon is necessary or efficient, define it the first time you use it.
Example: Communities increasingly depend on community giveaway newspapers. These tend to have strong circulation systems (that is, they are widely circulated and read) and have weak editorial foundations (they do not consistently take a particular stance).
Not: Communities increasingly depend on community giveaway newspapers with strong circulation systems and weak editorial foundations.

Avoid redundant words
Avoid words that do not add any information to a sentence, such as those italicised below:
A government Ministry …
… for a period of four years …
I personally think …
Check your use of ‘also,’ as it is often redundant.

Explain acronyms and abbreviations
Use the word or phrase in full the first time, with the acronym or abbreviation in brackets after it. Thereafter, use the abbreviation.
Example: I have referred your letter to the Weathertight Homes Resolution Service (WHRS) which was established in 2002. You can contact the WHRS …

Write short sentences with one idea per sentence
Example: Following this national conference, the Department went through a focus change and subsequent restructuring. This had a heavy impact on the network and led to uncertainty about its future. Subsequently a weaker network emerged.
Not: Following this national conference, the Department went through a focus change and subsequent restructuring which had a heavy impact on the network and led to uncertainty about its future, so that subsequently a weaker network emerged.

Check Government or government
Capitalising “government” depends on how you are using it. The guidelines below apply regardless of whether you are using government as a noun or an adjective:
“Government” should be capitalised when it refers to a specific, formally constituted Government. For example: This Government has decided…. It is Government policy that ….
“government” is in lower case when it refers to a non-specific government. For example, “this is typical of the dilemmas government faces” and “Throughout the government sector …”

Using apostrophes
Apostrophes have two main uses:
To indicate a missing letter or letters, for example: you’re, they’re
To indicate ownership; the apostrophe is placed after the person or group who owns the object. For example: Jane’s desk, analysts’ desks, the army’s provisions, the armies’ provisions.

Ministers (plural: more than one Minister)
Minister’s (belonging to one Minister)
Ministers’ (belonging to more than one Minister)
12 months’ worth
three days’ notice
SOEs, CRIs (these are plurals, no apostrophe is needed)
1990s (no apostrophe needed).
For “its:” use an apostrophe only when you mean “it is.”

Using quotation marks
In general use double quotation marks (“…”).
Single quotation marks are only used for a quotation within a quotation:
Trevor Mallard said “The ‘e-government’ programme is moving into its online transaction stage.”

Don’t mix singulars and plurals
“The Treasury was consulted. Its view was...”
“EMT decided that it would consider the issue in more detail at its next meeting.”
Not: “The Treasury was consulted. Their view was that …”
“EMT decided that it would consider the issue in more detail at their next meeting.”

Avoid split infinitives
An infinitive is the “to” form of a verb, such as; “to write,” “to improve.” Splitting infinitives by adding words within it is now very common and sometimes cannot be avoided. It is sufficient to be aware of it, and to avoid it where you reasonably can.
Example: “Of course you ought to apply for the position.”
Not: “You ought to of course apply for the position.”

Commonly misused words
“fewer” or “less”?
“Fewer” refers to number. For example: “Our organisation has fewer staff than some other departments.”
“Less” refers to size, degree or duration. For example: I seem to have less time than I used to.

inquiry” or “enquiry”?
“Inquiry” refers to an official process to investigate an issue
“Enquiry” refers to a question from a caller.
Note, however, that while this distinction is made in New Zealand, particularly within the public sector, it is not made in the dictionary.

“affect” or “effect”?
Affect (verb) means “influence.” For example: The new legislation may affect small businesses.
Effect (noun) means “result.” For example: The new legislation may have an effect on small businesses.
Effect (verb) means “bring about” or “accomplish.” For example: The new legislation may effect a change in business culture.

“Which” or “that” or “who”?
“Which” tends to be overused. In general, use it only for clauses inside commas. For example: “The process, which was approved by the local iwi, was implemented last year.”
“That” is more specific. Leave it out if the sentence makes sense without it.
“Who” applies only to people.

“Practice” or “practise”?
“Practice” is a noun (you can remember this because it ends in “ice,” which is a noun). For example: There is a practice session for the new system tomorrow.
“Practise” is a verb. For example: It is important to practise regularly.

“Licence” or “license”?
“Licence” is a noun (you can remember this because it ends in “ice,” which is a noun). For example: If you wish to renew your gaming licence, contact the Department of Internal Affairs.
“License” is a verb. For example: If you wish to license your dog, contact the City Council.

Words to avoid
Accordingly use instead so, therefore
as to whether use instead whether
Commence use instead begin, start
each and every use instead each, a, all
employ use instead use
endeavour use instead try
facilitate use instead help, assist
if and when use instead if, when
in respect of use instead about, for, as to
in the event that use instead if
meets the requirements of use instead complies with
preceding use instead earlier (in some instances)
prior to use instead before
relating to use instead about
utilise (means: “put to use”) use instead use (can sometimes replace “utilise”)