New Zealand English

Anne-Marie McDonald

New Zealand English is a variety of English that, it is safe to say, writers and editors outside of Aotearoa New Zealand seldom think about. If they do, they might think it’s the same as British English or Australian English. In this article we’ll look at some of the style considerations for New Zealand English.

How does it compare to Australian English?

In formal writing you’d be hard-pressed to find a difference between New Zealand and Australian styles. There are a few minor differences such as New Zealand English using ‘programme’ rather than ‘program’.

The difference between the two styles becomes more apparent in informal writing, particularly in the use of slang words and phrases. While a lot of Kiwi and Aussie slang is shared, there are some differences. For example, Australians may not be familiar with ‘waka’ (vehicle), ‘bach’ or ‘crib’ (holiday home), or ‘tai hoa’ (a command to wait). New Zealanders won’t be so familiar with ‘doona’, ‘thongs’ or ‘esky’, to give just a couple of examples.

There are also cultural differences that affect the two styles, even though we might like to think our two cultures are very similar. An Australian reader may sail past ‘Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’ without thinking twice, unaware that in New Zealand English it’s ‘Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’.

As with Australian English, New Zealand English is being affected by the prevalence of American English. For example, the word ‘cookie’ was seldom heard 40 years ago; now it’s used interchangeably with ‘biscuit’, particularly among younger people.

Use of te reo Māori

It’s impossible to discuss New Zealand English without considering the use of te reo Māori (the Māori language). It’s been an official language of New Zealand since 1987. Around 55 per cent of Māori have some ability to speak te reo (Statistics New Zealand, 2013). Most non-Māori New Zealanders are familiar with basic words and phrases, particularly younger people.

Editing of documents in te reo Māori should only be conducted by those fluent in the language. However, it is common for English-speaking editors working with New Zealand English to encounter words or phrases in te reo.

Te Aka is an excellent online English–Māori, Māori–English dictionary which can be used to check spelling, meaning and tohutō (macrons – the line above some vowels).

There are two important points to remember about the use of Māori words in New Zealand English. The first is that they should not be italicised. The second is that Māori words never take an ‘s’ on the end for the plural. For example, ‘There were six tūī in the ngaio tree’, not ‘There were six tūīs in the ngaio tree’.

There are a couple of exceptions to this. New Zealanders refer to themselves colloquially as ‘Kiwis’, and here the ‘s’ is used. You would not, however, use the ‘s’ for the name of the flightless native bird, the kiwi. The plural ‘s’ may also be used for Māori words when quoting historical documents or, occasionally, in fiction.

New Zealand style guides

New Zealand’s first style guide was the New Zealand Government Style Book (later called The New Zealand Style Book). This was first published in 1958 as a style guide for the government printing office and was republished regularly. For 40 years this was the go-to style guide for New Zealand English.

The government still publishes style guides. But they’re not particularly detailed and are published in electronic format only.

In the twenty-first century the most commonly used New Zealand style guide for writers and editors is Fit To Print (not to be confused with the Canadian essay-writing guide of the same name) . Written by Janet Hughes and Derek Wallace, this slim, yellow book was published in 2010.

An editor colleague of mine describes Fit To Print as the ‘she’ll-be-right style guide’.

‘It errs on the side of “whatever works for you” to a certain extent,’ she says. ‘ They have some guidelines, obviously, but it is nowhere near as prescriptive as a style manual like the Chicago Manual of Style. For commas it tells you what not to do, but the rest is up to you and consistency.’

Many New Zealand writers and editors supplement Fit To Print with another style guide, such as New Hart’s Rules or the Chicago Manual of Style.

Anne-Marie McDonald is a writer and editor based in Whanganui, New Zealand. She is a member of the Editors Aotearoa New Zealand branch of the Institute of Professional Editors.

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