Using abbreviations and acronyms in a dissertation

Abbreviations are a great way to make your writing concise and save you time. However, it’s important to use them correctly.

What is an abbreviation?

An abbreviation is a short form of a single word or a multi-word 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. Contractions and acronyms can be thought of as sub-categories of abbreviations. So, what makes them different?

Contractions

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

Contractions Common pronoun/verb combinations
I’m I am
isn’t is not
let’s let us
she’s she is
you’ve you have
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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).

Acronyms Words
Benelux Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg
FAQ Frequently Asked Question
IT Information technology
MBA Master of Business Administration
SWOT Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats

How and when should abbreviations be used?

Abbreviations are meant to make things easier for both you and your readers. The following tips will help you achieve this goal:

  • Remember that periods are commonly used with abbreviations, but not with acronyms or contractions.
  • Pluralize abbreviations by adding “s,” without an apostrophe.
    Example:

    Many CEOs of major MNCs attend the Davos Forum.

  • Introduce every acronym before starting to use it. To do this, put the acronym in parentheses after the full term the first time you use that term. Thereafter, stick to using the acronym.
    Example:

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

  • Note that extremely common acronyms do not need to be spelled out at all. However, the list is small. Examples of acronyms that don’t need to be spelled out
    Category Acronyms
    Countries PRC, UAE, UK, USA, USSR
    Organizations NASA, NATO, UNESCO, UNICEF
    Science and technology AIDS, AM/FM, CD, DVD, HDMI, HIV, laser, PC, radar, TV, USB
    Time BC/AD, BCE/CE, time zones
    Miscellaneous AKA, e.g., i.e.
  • Avoid contractions, as they are considered too informal for academic writing.
    Example:

    Incorrect: Let’s consider the first theory, which isn’t commonly accepted.

    Correct: Let us consider the first theory, which is not commonly accepted.

  • You can also introduce your acronyms, using a list of abbreviations.

When should abbreviations not be used?

  • Avoid abbreviations that are not commonly known (at least within your field).
  • Do not introduce an acronym unless you will use it a minimum of three or four times. Instead, just use the full term.
  • Do not begin a sentence with an acronym. Either write the term out or restructure the sentence.
    Example:

    Poor: B2B applications are gaining popularity.

    Better: Business-to-business applications are gaining popularity or Applications for B2B are gaining popularity.

Note: Although it’s best to avoid starting sentences with acronyms in academic writing, an exception is made for acronyms that can stand on their own as words or that represent an organization name (e.g. NASA or CERN).

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.

APA rules about abbreviations

If you are following the APA style guidelines, you should keep these additional suggestions in mind:

  • 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.
    Example:

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

  • 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.
    Example:

    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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