A Guide to Abbreviations

By Mark Nichol

Abbreviations are a sometimes necessary evil, but with the power to employ them comes great responsibility. This post outlines types of abbreviations and associated guidelines.

An abbreviation is a shortening of a word or phrase, either by truncation or by abridgement by way of using only the first letter of each word of the term in turn (though sometimes more than the first letter is included, and occasionally, in the interest of creating an easily pronounceable abbreviation, one or more words are not represented).

In the case of truncation, a word is whittled down to the first letter or first several letters, or the first and last letters (and sometimes others). Thus, L or R might be used in place of left or right as a directional indicating positioning of people, place, or things in a caption for a photograph or other figure. Job titles are often abbreviated to the first few letters of a word as in military ranks (major and gen. for major and general) and political offices (sen. and rep. for senator and representative). Exceptions in the former category include sgt. for sergeant and capt. for captain.

In American English, abbreviations for social titles usually reduce a word to its first and last letters, followed by a period, as in the case of Mr. and Dr., and common abbreviations follow this form (as in the case of hr. for hour, though the abbreviations for second and minute are the truncations sec. and min.).

Two other types of abbreviation are the acronym and the initialism. In both categories, a string of words is reduced to (usually) the first letter of each word; the distinction is that an acronym, as the element -onym (Greek for “name” or “word”) indicates, is pronounced as a word, as in the case of NASA, whereas an initialism, as the name suggests, is sounded out letter by letter, as in FBI.

Most people are not aware of (or do not give any thought to) the distinction, but it is important in this sense. Because acronyms are treated as words, they are not preceded by an article (one writes “NASA was established in 1958,” not “The NASA was established in 1958”); by contrast, an article precedes an initialism (as in “The FBI launched the investigation in January,” not “FBI launched the investigation in January”). Exceptions occur when an acronym is used adjectivally (“The NASA project is underway”) and in periodical headlines (“FBI Launches Investigation”).

In American English, acronyms and initialisms are often distinguished by styling the former in small caps and the latter in full-size capital letters, though abbreviations of more than four letters are often, after long usage as capitalized terms, treated as regular words, as in the case of Nasdaq, a proper noun (an abbreviation of “National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations”) and radar (from “radio detection and ranging”).

Unfamiliar acronyms and initialisms are usually introduced to readers in parentheses immediately after the first reference to the entity by its full name, after which the abbreviation alone is sufficient (or the abbreviation is simply used after the first reference without the parenthetical signal, as long as the next reference appears soon after the first one), but common abbreviations need no such introduction. However, whether an abbreviation is considered transparent or otherwise is up to a specific publication or publisher to decide, based on its readership’s familiarity with the term. (Companies should keep a record of such usage in a house style guide; see also this post.)

Another consideration, though, is to avoid cluttering a piece of writing with numerous abbreviations, which smacks of jargon. If a term is used only occasionally, it may be better to spell it out in each case. Another strategy to avoid frequent repetition of acronyms or initialisms is to sometimes replace the term with a generic reference such as “the agency,” “the law,” “the program,” and so on.

Writers should avoid redundancy in using acronyms and initialisms, where widespread usage obscures the wording of the phrase from which the abbreviation is formed, so that reference is too often made to, for example, ATM machines (the M stands for machine) and PIN numbers (number is represented by the N).

A variation of use of acronyms is syllabic abbreviation, in which terms consist of parts of, or one or more syllables of, one or more words; examples include Interpol (“international police”) and nicknames for urban areas such as SoHo (denoting “south of Houston Street”) in New York City.

In general, lowercase abbreviations include periods (as in the case of i.e., a.m., and m.p.h.), and uppercase abbreviations omit them (as with MD, US, and ABC). However, specialized publications, especially those pertaining to science and technology, often do not use periods in either case, and note that shorthand for metric terms is considered a system of symbols rather than abbreviations, so periods are never used with cm (centimeter) or kg (kilogram), for example.

Certain treatments of initials in names are treated differently in some publications: According to The Chicago Manual of Style, the style guide of record for most book publishers and many publications, a letter space should separate two or more initials in a name, as in “A. B. See.” However, the Associated Press Style Book avoids spaces when possible, including in names. Initials used in lieu of an entire name, such as those for famous politicians and other public figures, are universally formatted without spaces or periods, as in JFK and MLK.

Most publications and publishers do not use apostrophes when pluralizing an abbreviation, as in PCs and URLs. For some specialized terms, such as abbreviated terms for units of measure, no plural is indicated in the abbreviation (so, for example, lb. applies to one or more pounds); another exception is abbreviations in baseball: “Runs batted in,” for example, is abbreviated as RBI.

Use of informal abbreviation (lulz and the like) has proliferated since the advent of online social media, but this trend has not been accepted into formal usage and should be avoided except in casual writing and in communication among family and friends.


10 Responses to “A Guide to Abbreviations”

  • D.A.W.

    While the Western Allies were preparing to invade Normandy in 1944, it became clear that delivering enough fuel to the troops in France would be difficult (fuel for their tanks, trucks, jeeps, field kitchens, and eventually airfields).
    The military engineers decided upon temporary pipelines from England to Normandy. Winston Churchill gave these their code name:
    PLUTO = Pipeline Under The Ocean,
    and the whole operation was an immense success.
    It is interesting that “Operation Overlord” had a “Pluto”.
    One over the English Channel and one underneath it.
    By “Western Allies” we mean the Americans, the British, and the Canadians. Then the Eastern Allies against Germany were the Russians.
    There were other prominent Allies in other parts of the world, fighting the Germans, Italians, and Japanese:
    Australia, Brazil, China, India/Pakistan/Burma, New Zealand, South African, Tanzania, etc.

  • D.A.W.

    Soldiers and Marines from both Taiwan and South Korea are called “Rocks”. This comes from ROC = Republic of China and ROK = Republic of Korea.
    The meaning of “sonar” is “SOund Navigation And Ranging”.
    SYNCOM comes from SYNchronous COMmunications satellite, because there were all made for and launched into geosynchronous orbits: the Clarke Orbit, named for Arthur C. Clarke.
    SOS means “slop on a shingle”, disgusting rations in military camps.

  • D.A.W.

    Abbreviations in governments.
    The Federal Government of the United States abounds with them. There are more of them than can be easily remembered or counted, so I will just mention the cases in which ONE abbreviation suffices for more than one department, agency, or office, and similar things:
    FHA = Farmer’s Home Administration or Federal Highway Administration
    USA = United States of America or United States Army
    DOT = Department of the Treasury or Department of Transportation
    AG = Attorney General or Dept. of Agriculture, “The AG”.
    NASA = the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, but its predecessor was the N.A.C.A. = National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, pronounced “N”, “A”, “C”, “A”.
    Now, I will turn to our neighbors on this continent and our friends overseas:
    MP = Member of Parliament
    PM = Prime Minister
    MoD = Minister of Defense or Ministry of Defense
    MoS = Minister of State or Ministry of State
    Does CoE = Chancellor of the Exchequer ?
    HRH = Her Royal Highness or His Royal Highness
    UN = United Nations
    SG = Secretary General
    BRD = Bundesrepublik Deutschland, or FRG in English
    ROC = Republic of China (Taiwan)
    ROK = Republic of Korea (South Korea)
    For an unfriendly place,
    the DPRK is neither democratic, nor the people’s , nor a republic. It is an evil dictatorship, no more.
    They say that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. It came to an end in 1806, which was while Thomas Jefferson was the POTUS (President of the United States), and then most of its territory was taken over by the Confederation of the Rhine, Prussia, Austria, and whoever ruled northern Italy then.

  • D.A.W.

    “Use of informal abbreviation… has proliferated…”
    LOL, LOL! SSDD!
    These were preceded decades ago by BMOC, BYOB, and IWW (the International Workers of the World).

  • venqax

    Abbreviation is an awfully long word. Just sayin’.

  • D.A.W.

    In the Interstate Highway System in the U.S., the Federal Highway Administration tried to get rid of all of the N, S, E, and W letters. For example, in 1976 in Colorado, I-80S was renumbered as I-76. That was very appropriate since in 1976, the U.S.A. was celebrating its 200th anniversary, and Colorado was celebrating its 100th anniversary as a state.
    All of these were done away with by renumbering:
    In California: I- 5W, I- 5E, I-15W, and I-15E
    In Idaho: different I-15W and I-15W
    In Kansas: I-35W, which became I-135
    In several western states, I-80N became I-84,
    I-80S (in Pennsylvania) became I-76,
    and I-70S (in Maryland) became I-270.
    The last remnants of this system are in metropolitan areas in Minnesota and Texas:
    I-35W goes through Minneapolis and I-35E goes through St. Paul;
    I-35W goes through Ft. Worth and I-35E goes through Dallas.
    In both cases, some suburban cities and towns are involved, too, such as Bloomington, Minn., and Denton, Texas.

  • D.A.W.

    There are just a few states in which the Federal Highways have an additional letter of the alphabet: W, E, N, or S, for parallel routes. These are almost always in Tennessee and Kentucky. The Federal Highway Administration tried to eliminate this practice, but the legislatures and people of Tennessee and Kentucky did not agree.
    Therefore, in Tennessee we have these U.S. Highways:
    11E, 11W, 25E, and 25W, all in East Tennessee.
    Also, in Middle Tennessee, we have Highways 31E, 31W, 70N, and 70S. To confuse things more, there is a long stretch between the Cumberland Plateau and Nashville that contains three:
    U.S. 70, 70N, and 70S, all running roughly parallel with one another.

  • D.A.W.

    As for the letters L and R, there is the way of naming runways at airports. Some busy airports have parallel runways. In general, the runways are numbered according to which compass direction they point, but with a multiple of 10 left out.
    Therefore, Runway 9R points due east (90 degrees from the north) and Runway 9L is its parallel runway.
    When landing on the same runways in the opposite direction, a factor of 180 degrees is added, and those same two runways are called Runway 27R and 27L.

  • D.A.W.

    This article needs some careful proofreading and corrections because some salient errors have been made.
    For example: “first few letters of a word as in military ranks (major and gen. for major and general)” is erroneous. There are other mistakes in that same paragraph.
    Also, when those abbreviations are used as part of names, the first letter is capitalized, as in Lt. Roberts, Ens. Pulver, Cap. or Capt. Kirk, Col. John Glenn, and Gen. Eisenhower.
    There are some other ranks for which the abbreviations are not the initial letters, such as Adm. Rickover, Cmdr. Ryan, Cpl. Jones, Pvt. Smith, A1C Johnson, L. Cpl. Fuller, and P.O. Ward. Hence, abbreviating them one way is just as common as the other, and so there are no “exceptions”. It is just about a 50-50 split.

  • D.A.W.

    According to the “Chicago Manual of Style” – “a letter space should separate two or more initials in a name, as in ‘A. B. See.'”
    I think that for examples like these, the name of a famous person should be used: H. G. Welles, T. S. Elliot, E. G. Marshall, George H. W. Bush, T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), O. K. Van Buren, for President Martin “Old Kinderhook” Van Buren.
    On the other hand, I believe that J.E.B. Stuart is almost always written this way, especially since his name was usually pronounced as “Jeb Stuart”.
    In a piece of fiction, the Civil War in the United States was never fought. In this novel, J.E.B. Stuart became the father of R.E.L. Stuart in 1867, named for the father’s good friend Robert E. Lee. R.E.L. Stuart became a prominent politician, including being the Governor of the State of Cuba, which had become part of the Confederacy.
    In real life, and in our real history, J.E.B. Stuart was killed in action in 1864, so there was no way that he could be anyone’s father in 1867.
    This book had an interesting chain reaction of capital cities:
    1. Maryland seceded from the Union, and Washington, D.C., became the capital of the Confederacy.
    2. The capital city of the Union became Columbus, Ohio.
    3. The capital city of Ohio became Cleveland then.

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