Using abbreviations and acronyms

An abbreviation is a short form of a word or phrase that is usually made by deleting certain letters. In the following sentence, everything underlined is an abbreviation:

Dr. Jones, who’s currently undertaking research on DNA, can’t attend the WHO conference being held in the US in Oct. 2016.

Not all of the abbreviations used in this example have the same look and feel. This is because while Dr. and Oct. are general abbreviations, who’s and can’t are contractions and DNA, WHO, and US are acronyms. In academic writing, contractions should be avoided, but acronyms are commonly used.

Contractions

Contractions are mostly used to simplify common pronoun/verb combinations. Deleted letters are replaced by an apostrophe.

ContractionsCommon pronoun/verb combinations
I’mI am
isn’tis not
let’slet us
she’sshe is
you’veyou have

However, contractions are generally considered too informal for academic writing. In this context, always write out the full words instead.

  • Let’s consider the first theory, which isn’t commonly accepted.
  • Let us consider the first theory, which is not commonly accepted.

Acronyms

Acronyms are usually formed using the first letter (or letters) of each word in a phrase. When they are read, some are pronounced as if they are words (such as OPEC); others are read as letters (such as the UK).

AcronymsWords
BeneluxBelgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg
FAQFrequently Asked Question
ITInformation technology
MBAMaster of Business Administration
SWOTStrengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats

Pluralize acronyms by adding “s” without an apostrophe.

  • Many CEO’s of major MNC’s attend the Davos Forum.
  • Many CEOs of major MNCs attend the Davos Forum.

Introducing acronyms

Introduce every acronym before using it in the text. The first time you use the term, put the acronym in parentheses after the full term. Thereafter, you can stick to using the acronym.

  • The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is headquartered in Switzerland. The IOC President is elected by secret ballot.

Do not introduce an acronym unless you will use it a minimum of three or four times. If it only appears once or twice, write out the full term. If you use a lot of acronyms in the document, you can also introduce them in a list of abbreviations.

There are some extremely common acronyms that do not need to be introduced. However, the list is small. Some examples of acronyms that don’t need to be spelled out include:

CategoryAcronyms
CountriesPRC, UAE, UK, USA, USSR
OrganizationsNASA, NATO, UNESCO, UNICEF
Science and technologyAIDS, AM/FM, CD, DVD, HDMI, HIV, laser, PC, radar, TV, USB
TimeBC/AD, BCE/CE, time zones
Latin abbreviationse.g., i.e., et al.

Avoiding acronyms at the start of sentences

Do not begin a sentence with an acronym. Either write out the full term, or restructure the sentence.

  • B2B applications are gaining popularity.
  • Business-to-business applications are gaining popularity.
  • Applications for B2B are gaining popularity.
The exception to this rule is acronyms that can stand on their own as words or that represent an organization name (e.g. NASA or CERN).

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Latin abbreviations

There are some Latin abbreviations that are common in academic writing.

AbbreviationMeaningUsageExample
e.g. (exempli gratia)for exampleUsed to give examples in parenthesesMany species of primates (e.g., orangutans) are endangered.
i.e. (id est)that isUsed to clarify, specify or restate something in parenthesesMany endangered species (i.e., species that are very likely to become extinct) are primates.
etc. (et cetera)and so onUsed at the end of a list in parentheses to indicate more unstated items on the listThere are many species of primates that are endangered (gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, etc.).
et al. (et alii)and other peopleUsed after the first author when citing publications with multiple authorsConsumers experience greater risk with online purchases (Writers et al., 2016, p. 47).
ibid. (ibidem)in the same placeUsed in footnote and endnote citations when citing the same source and page twice in a row1. Porter, 63-64.
2. Ibid.

Make sure not to confuse “e.g.” and “i.e.”. In general, it’s best to avoid using these abbreviations in the main text, especially in US English. Instead, put them inside parentheses followed by a comma, or write out full words.

  • Many species of primates, e.g. orangutans, are endangered.
  • Many species of primates (e.g., orangutans) are endangered.
  • Many species of primates, such as orangutans, are endangered.

Punctuating abbreviations

Periods should always be used with Latin abbreviations, but not with contractions or acronyms. For general abbreviations, there are differences in punctuation between US and UK English.

USUK
Most title abbreviations take a period (e.g. Doctor to Dr., Mister to Mr., Honorable to Hon., Drive to Dr.)Title abbreviations take a period only if the abbreviation does not end on the last letter of the full word (e.g. Doctor to Dr, Mister to Mr, but Honourable to Hon., Drive to Dr.)

Abbreviations (including acronyms) are heavily used in legal writing. The conventions must be strictly followed, but they vary between countries and universities. If you are writing on a legal topic, you should adhere to the relevant style.

Abbreviations in APA

If you are following the APA style guidelines, there are some specific guidelines for certain types of abbreviation.

Measurements

Only abbreviate statistical terms (such as SD and M) and units of measurement (such as kg and min) if you are also using a number.

  • The first step entailed using the centimeter measurements to calculate a mean (M = 32.4 cm, SD = 3.7 cm).

Punctuation

Use periods if you are abbreviating a Latin term (such as g., a.m., and etc.) or referring to something related to your references (such as ed. or p.).

Use periods when US serves as an adjective, but not when it refers to the country.

  • The US is classified as a federal republic, with the U.S. Congress playing a key role.
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Sarah Vinz

Sarah's academic background includes a Master of Arts in English, a Master of International Affairs degree, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She loves the challenge of finding the perfect formulation or wording and derives much satisfaction from helping students take their academic writing up a notch.

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