All About Abbreviations

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This is a guest post by Letia Graening.

An abbreviation is defined as a shortened version of a word or phrase. But did you know that there are many different types of abbreviations? Here is a list of abbreviation types:

Acronym – This forms a word using the initial parts or first letters of a name. For example, ABBA, MADD, and OPEC are all acronyms that take the first letter from each word to form a new word. Lesser known acronyms include scuba and laser. The latter examples show that not all acronyms have to be capitalized.

Initialism – Also called alphabetism, this is a group of letters, each pronounced separately, used as an abbreviation for a name or expression. Examples include: CD, TV, and UK.

Truncation – This type of abbreviation consists only of the first part of a word. These are most often used when referring to proper titles such as months of the year or days of the week, e.g., Mon., Fri., Apr., Oct.

Clipped – Similar to truncation in that you are using a part of the word to form the abbreviation, but in this case you’re using either the middle or end. Common clipped abbreviations include phone (telephone) and fridge (refrigerator).

Aphesis – In this case, you have dropped the unstressed vowel at the beginning of the word. These are often unintentional and casually spoken versions of the words. Perhaps the best example is ’cause instead of because.

Portmanteau – The blending of two or more words will give you a portmanteau. Some of my personal favorites include liger (lion and tiger), spork (spoon and fork), skort (shorts and skirt), and brinner (breakfast and dinner).

Some things to consider when using abbreviations:

  • Anyone can make up an abbreviation and many are non-standard. They should, therefore, be left out of formal writing.
  • If the full word would be capitalized (e.g., Sunday or January), make sure to capitalize the abbreviation (e.g., Sun. or Jan.).

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24 thoughts on “All About Abbreviations”

  1. Very useful article, I’m a Brazilian educator and I love to browser on this sites around the world. I also a blogger known as English tips. Keep up doing a great job.

  2. Acronyms can be tricky because CRM could stand for Custom Relocation Management (if you work in real estate) or Customer Relationship Management. I try not use acronyms because they may confuse people.

  3. Thank you for the clarifications and satiating my curiosity. I think you could have included aphaeresis, which my Merriam-Webster says is, “the loss of one or more sounds or letters at the beginning of a word (as in round for around and coon for raccoon)” and an aphesis is a special form.” Which, I wouldn’t have found if you hadn’t written the column. Thank you, again.

  4. Once upon a time, words like scuba and radar were known as acronyms and constructions like CIA and RCMP were called abbreviations. When did they all come to be known as acronyms, and who decided that?

  5. As Rebecca says abbreviations can be tricky especially when the same set of initials can stand for different things depending on context. For example PC can be Police Constable, Parish Council, Personal Computer, Politically Correct and probably other things besides.

  6. Thanks for this Letia – very useful! I have a few of questions:

    1. Are you suggesting that *all* abbreviations should be left out of formal writing? For example, should I write ‘United Kingdom’, rather than ‘UK’? Or ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organization’ rather than ‘NATO’? (Not that I write much about ‘NATO’! Or should that be ‘Nato’?) Surely most common initialisms and acronyms are OK? Although, they should usually written out in full in the first instance, shouldn’t they?

    2. This may be a difference in national style, but I have seen American texts where ‘NATO’, say, is written thus, but ‘U.S.’ is written thus. That is, full-stops/periods seem to be used solely when abbreviating ‘United States’. Have I got this right? I’m an Australian, though I normally follow the Oxford style, and in both cases the use of full-stops seems to be falling from favour. Can you please shed any light on this?

    Again, a very helpful post, thanks!

  7. I may not submit comment often enough but I truly enjoy most of your posts! Have not heard of Portmanteau. Thanks!
    Besides tricky, Acronyms can be fun too! Under Discovery Communications,Inc. TLC stands for The Learning Channel, in America, Travel Living Channel in India. Also Thin Layer Chromatography & Tender Love Care!

  8. Remember, though, that CMS and PC aren’t acronyms, they’re initialisms (or initialisations, as I thought they were called). An abbreviation is only an acronym when it can be pronounced as a word itself – NATO or DARPA, for example.

    The initialisation which always confuses me is FSB – in the UK, it’s the Federation of Small Businesses. However, it’s also the Anglicised abbreviation for Russia’s Federal Security Service. This makes watching Spooks (or MI5, I think it’s called in the US) rather confusing…

  9. The run-down on abbreviations was great but did not cover one issue that I regularly get into ‘friendly’ discussion about. I learnt many years ago at school that if an abbreviation ends with the same letter as the original word, no full stop is required, but if it does not, then the full stop must complete it. E.g. Revd vs Rev. Consequently Mr and Mrs do not need the full stop, whereas etc. does. Yet I frequently see them the other way around … etc and Mrs. and so on. Any thoughts on this?

  10. Michael: I think it’s an issue for common sense, rather than rigid rules. If you eliminated all abbreviations from formal writing, it would look very strange and long-winded, especially when referring to organisations that are only ever known by initials (e.g. IBM). As for whether to spell them out the first time you use them, again, it’s common sense: if writing about SOCA you probably do need to, but not for UK or USA.

    Dawn: Full stops (periods) are on the way out for all sorts of abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms; that probably accounts for some of the confusion and inconsistency.

  11. Are there any rules about when NOT to abbreviate, period? I find abbreviations (such as Tues. or Dec.) irritating in places where it appears there is plenty of space to write the whole word (Tuesday or December)…especially where we don’t actually “say” the abbreviation in usual speech.

    The acronyms and initialisms make perfect sense as long as your reader knows what they mean, so in most cases I write the full name the first time it’s used with the acronym following in parentheses, then just use the acronym the rest of the time.

  12. Very interesting and useful, thanks for this good post; also it would be great If you could clarify what some abbreviations really stand for such as:
    OK, PA, e.g., i.e., and others ’cause ESL students and teachers handle different versions that usually are all myths

  13. Dawn> I think the rule is (or was) that you used periods for truncations (where a word is cut off after the first few letters) but not for contractions (where letters are removed from the middle of the word).

    So ‘street’ can be abbreviated as ‘St.’ but ‘saint’ should be ‘St’

  14. @Rod
    E.G. – Exempli Gratis, Latin, roughly translates as “for example” when introducting examples. It is followed by a comma.
    “I like some animals, e.g., dogs, cats, and mice.” (This gives sample animals I like.)

    I.E. – Id Est, Latin, roughly translates as “which is to say” when introducing not examples but the full description of something. It is followed by a comma.
    “I like some animals, i.e., dogs, cats, and mice.” (This gives the full list of animals I like.)
    “To understand why many students do not understand grammar, we can reflect on the classrooms, i.e., the teachers.”

    We support the use of acronyms and initializations in formal writing. However, we always use the full form first, followed by the acronym or initialization in parentheses. Thus, we would write as follows:
    “The Hopewell Independent School District (HISD) is without an acting superintendent. The HISD school board . . . .”

  15. @I. HYDER: Other manuals may differ but The Oxford Guide to Style suggests a.m. and p.m., i.e., lower case, with full points (periods), but US, UK, etc.

  16. @Stephen:
    I’ve never heard any rule about using periods for truncations but not contractions; I just follow whatever seems most common, or if neither does, whichever one I like better. In any case, the rule wouldn’t fit standard American usage, where “Mister” is abbreviated “Mr.” and your example of “Saint” is abbreviated “St.” (Take, for example, the city of St. Louis, Missouri, which has the abbreviation in its name.)

  17. @Emma: FYI (F.Y.I.?) I was always taught (in Australia) that full points should be reserved for contractions, so Elizabeth St and St Francis. In fact, it was drummed into me that writing Ltd., Dr., Mr., etc. was just plain unejamacated. But then, the Oxford Style Manual recommends ‘edn.’ for ‘edition’ and ‘US’ for ‘United States’, whilst freely admitting that it’s inconsistent, thoroughly confused and needs a little lie down somewhere cool and pleasant; perhaps with a nice cup of tea. Whoever concocted English was stoned off their tree!

  18. Michael, without wanting to make presumptions about your age, what you were taught at school may have correlated with the Oxford Style Manual of the time, but is not necessarily what is taught now.

    Fashion changes, and punctuating abbreviations is more about style than grammar.

  19. Cecily,

    Point well made, and I may be middle-aged (I’m thirty-nine, by the way) but the Oxford Style Manual (Ritter, 2003) I have here on my desk is but a wee nipper, albeit the modern reincarnation of a much older chum (Hart’s Rules). Nonetheless, you have prompted me to refer widely, for which I’m grateful, if still a tad confused.

    Mr Gillespie, writing in my copy of Good English: How to Speak and Write it (Odhams Press Ltd, London, 1949), has this to advice for ‘The Student Writer’ on the subject of abbreviations: ‘On the whole avoid the use of abbreviations in serious writing, because most of them remind us of the jargon of the business letter. Shun, therefore, viz., &., ult., prox., …Yorks., N.E., and all their wretched tribe. They save little space and are old-fashioned[!]… A few abbreviations, however, have passed into general use and these can be retained: they include Mr. and Mrs., University degrees, and Latin phrases.’ (p 160).

    ‘…and all their wretched tribe.’ 🙂

    Ritter—he of Oxford fame—says (ahem), ‘Traditionally, abbreviations were supposed to end in full points while contractions did not…’ and ‘…US English tends to use punctuation more than British English (U.S.A. rather than USA), and non-technical English in either country uses more punctuation than technical English (ml. rather than ml).’ He goes on to say, without the slightest trace of ironic understatement, ‘This makes it difficult to predict with confidence the punctuation following abbreviations…’! (pp 63-4). Ritter then helpfully—nay—gleefully refers the confused reader to the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. Nice.

    The observations and advice of my trusty Penguin Writer’s Manual (Manser & Curtis, 2002) are pretty practical, moreover:

    ‘The situation with regard to the use of full stops in abbreviations in modern English, to say the least, fluid. Some commentators have suggested that there is no longer a consensus, that different publishers decide on a set of rules that will apply to their own publications, and that individuals are equally at liberty to set their own conventions. …What is important, however, is that whatever system is adopted should be followed consistently.’ (p 176)

    Likewise, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Peters, 2004) says that nobody knows whether they’re Arthur or Martha, the Internet is screwing with people’s heads*, and anything goes ‘provided [it] is not obscure to the reader’. It goes on to recommend in its ‘International English selection’ an Anglo-American hybrid where ‘periods/full stops [are used] for abbreviations containing one or more lower case letters… [GATT, UK, Mr., Rev., mgr., incl., a.s.a.p.] in keeping with the worldwide trend to reduce punctuation, without any commitment to different punctuation for constractions and abbreviations, and the anomalies that it creates.’ (pp 4-5)

    (Mind you, it also recommends ‘color’ over ‘colour’ for International English, and up with that I will not put!)

    So, there you have it. A consensus, at long last! My work here is done. Back to my thesis.


    *It doesn’t really say this, but I’m firmly of the opinion that it ought to.

  20. Michael: Gosh you’ve been busy. Thanks for sharing.

    I was given Pam Peters’ “The Cambridge Guide to English Usage” for Christmas and was very pleased with it until you pointed out its glaring omission about Arthur and Martha. 😉

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