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Style Manual

Punctuation and capitalisation

Punctuation and capitalisation have rules for correct use. Use minimal punctuation and capitalisation to make content more readable.

Use minimal punctuation to make meaning clear

Minimal punctuation doesn’t mean removing all punctuation marks from a sentence. It means removing unnecessary punctuation.

Only use punctuation that makes the sentence grammatically correct and the meaning clear.

Too much punctuation makes text crowded and difficult to read. If a sentence has a lot of punctuation marks, it might be a sign that the sentence is too long or complex. Try to rewrite into shorter, clearer sentences.

To use minimal punctuation:

  • Don’t add full stops to the ends of headings, page headers, footers or captions.
  • Don’t use a semicolon at the end of each item in a bullet list.
  • Unless each item is a full sentence or the last item in a list, don’t use a full stop for items in bullet lists.
  • Don’t use full stops between letters in an acronym or initialism.
  • Don’t use a full stop at the end of most abbreviations.

Minimal punctuation helps all users to understand content.

Some screen readers will announce punctuation marks. Some will change the modulation of the voice depending on the punctuation mark.

Watch out for misplaced punctuation: it can change meaning

Use punctuation marks to:

  • end sentences (full stops, exclamation marks and question marks)
  • break up sentences and show the relationship between words and phrases (commas, colons, semicolons, dashes, forward slashes and ellipses)
  • show possession and contractions (apostrophes)
  • connect related words (hyphens and dashes).

Use the correct spacing around punctuation marks

Check the relevant topic in this manual for advice on how to treat each punctuation mark.

There are different rules for putting spaces around punctuation marks. For example, some punctuation marks have no spaces around them. Some have a space on either side.

Include a single space after a punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. Never use double spaces. Check each document for double and multiple spaces and delete them.

Capitalise the first word in a sentence and in headings

Capitalise the first word in a sentence. Use lower case for all other words, unless those words include proper nouns. This is called ‘sentence case’.

Use sentence case for:

Do not use all capitals for headings, unless the visual design for the content meets WCAG 2.1 in all respects.

Use sentence case with italics for titles of works mentioned in the content. This applies even when the reference is included in a heading within the content.

Minimise capitals for common nouns and adjectives

Proper nouns generally have an initial capital letter for each word in the noun.

Common nouns and adjectives don’t use initial capitals, with few exceptions. For example, adjectives often have capitals when they refer to a national, religious or linguistic group.

Differences between proper and common names

This manual contains guidance for names and terms by topic. Always check a dictionary if in doubt.

Shortened forms

Use shortened forms only when this choice supports plain English.

Rules for capitalisation and punctuation differ from rules for terms spelt out in full. The rules depend on where the terms are in the sentence.

The spelt-out form might not need initial capitals, even if an acronym or initialism has them. Use normal capitalisation practices for proper and common nouns. If in doubt, check a dictionary.

If the shortened form represents a proper noun, start each word with a capital letter.

Example

‘NSW’ is written out as ‘New South Wales’.

If the shortened form represents a common noun, do not begin each word of the full form with a capital letter.

Example

‘EIS’ is written out as ‘environmental impact statement’.

‘TB’ is written out as ‘tuberculosis’.

Only use capitals when the style is standardised or specified in regulations, for symbols of units of measurement.

Follow the guidance on capitals for titles and government terms

Follow conventions for using capitals for titles, honours and forms of address. Use capitals when an official title precedes the name of the office holder. This includes titles for executives specified in legislation.

Unless advised in this manual, avoid using capitals in paragraph text for a particular position or role within an organisation. This practice goes against readability and does not support clarity.

You do not need to use capitals when the title is an organisational name given to an office holder. Deference for positions within an organisation might follow house style. Do not use house style outside of the organisational context. Detail any special use of capitals in a style sheet.

Preferences for capitals when the terms ‘traditional owner’, ‘elder’ and ‘custodian’ are used as titles should come directly from the relevant First Nations community.

Write this

Chief Defence Scientist Tanya Monro presented the award ...

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The Senior Policy Adviser offered their view ...

Follow the rules of capitalisation for government terms, for example:

  • government programs and agreements
  • mentions of parliament
  • references to states and territories.

Legal material has its own conventions for capitalisation. Content that has a legislative focus might use complementary sources to the guidance on citing legal material in this manual.

Legal documents often use initial capitals to show terms with a defined meaning (such as ‘Department’, ‘Schedule’, ‘Vendor’ and ‘Recipient’). In these cases, use the form of the name as it is written in the legislation.

Release notes

The digital edition gives a brief overview of the main rules of punctuation. It gives the user the main points and provides links to detailed guidance in the manual.

The sixth edition had comprehensive information about punctuation dealt with under two main sections: spelling and word punctuation and sentence punctuation.

The Content Guide covered punctuation symbols as individual topics, but did not give an overview.

The digital edition is consistent with the Content Guide, which used ‘sentence case’ and ‘title case’ as terms for capitalisation style. This is a departure from the sixth edition in terminology for capitalisation styles.

The sixth edition used ‘maximal capitalisation’, not ‘title case’. The sixth edition used ‘minimal capitalisation’ for ‘sentence case’, which refers to the style for publication titles and headings in the digital edition.

The digital edition uses ‘minimal capitalisation’ to refer to a principle, rather than a capitalisation style. Minimal capitalisation is the principle of writing with the minimum amount of capitalisation required to make the context understood. It is paired with the principle or convention of minimal punctuation.

Consistent with the sixth edition, an ‘initial capital’ means that the first letter of a word is capitalised. It is a descriptive phrase, not a capitalisation style. The Content Guide did not use this phrase.

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References

Australian House of Representatives (1965) Debates, HR18:5.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019) Course notes and exercises: editing and proofreading for the workplace, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.

Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Selk A (2018) ‘One space or two spaces after a full stop? Scientists have finally found the answer’, Independent, accessed 5 March 2020.

Stilman A (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.

Stone A and Ford R (2017) ‘Chasing after a century of punctuation’, Procedia Computer Science, 118:15–21, doi:0.1016/j.procs.2017.11.144.

Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London.

This page was updated Monday 21 September 2020.

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