When to Abbreviate, Etc.

By Mark Nichol

When is it appropriate to abbreviate words? The answer to this question, as with many matters in writing, is not a simple one: It depends on type of content and the degree of the content’s formality.

In technical publications and scholarly journals, abbreviation of statistical information or references to dimensions and durations abounds. Furthermore, the American Medical Association’s manual of style dictates that periods be omitted in many abbreviations. However, in general content intended for professional publication, consider whether to abbreviate, especially in contexts in which multiple various abbreviations might be distracting.

Social titles such as Mr., Mrs., and Ms., are usually superfluous altogether but are abbreviated when they appear, except in generic usage such as “Hey, mister!” Doctor is abbreviated before a name but otherwise spelled out, as is saint. (Note, however, that cities and other geographic designations differ in using Saint or St.; consult a resource to verify the correct style for a particular location.) Military and quasi-military ranks are spelled out or abbreviated depending on context, but as with other titles, they should be spelled out in isolation (for example, “The captain returned the salute”).

Regarding i.e., that abbreviation and its close cousins e.g. and etc. are convenient, but they are no improvement on the English equivalents (“that is,” “for example,” and “and so on,” respectively). Style for scholarly journals is to use the abbreviations in parentheses and spell out the English phrases outside parentheses, but this distinction is not recommended for general-interest publications; avoid them altogether.

Names of countries and other geopolitical entities are usually spelled out as nouns but abbreviated as adjectives (“the United States,” but “the US economy”); note in the previous example that periods in such designations, as in most other capitalized abbreviations, are unnecessary. Designations of thoroughfares, like many other words, can be abbreviated in lists or in graphics where space is at a premium, but generally spell out such terms as avenue, road, and street even when they are part of an address.

Titles of senior corporate executives—CEO, COO, and CIO, for instance—are almost always abbreviated in all references, but VP (“vice president”), SVP (“senior vice president”), and the like are generally spelled out in all instances. Corporate terms such as PR (“public relations”) and HR (“human resources”) can be spelled out or abbreviated depending on context; they’re likely to be spelled out in a formal report and probably will be abbreviated in a casual reference in a mass-market book.

Academic degrees are often abbreviated after a person’s name, but it’s better to refer to someone receiving a bachelor’s or master’s degree or a doctorate rather than a BA, an MA, or a PhD. Likewise, “curriculum vitae,” or the plural form “curricula vitae,” is preferable to CV.

References to media such as CDs and DVDs are ubiquitous (or at least were before they began to give way to online access to music and films), and there’s no need to spell those initialisms out. (You’d likely have to look up that DVD originally stood for “digital video disc,” though the second word has since been supplanted by versatile. And who knows, or cares, that URL stands for “uniform resource locator”? The initialism will do in all cases.) However, words for parts of a book or other printed publication should be spelled out (for example, “In my copy, chapter 6 starts on page 47”), and MS or ms, for manuscript, should be used only in informal contexts.

No. is sometimes used as an abbreviation for number in phrases such as “No. 1”; it’s a compromise between spelling the word out and using the number symbol (#).

The abbreviation for versus, vs., is acceptable in informal content, as is OK. (Okay is a common variant, but the initials are more accurate; the most likely derivation of OK is the jocular misspelling “oll korrect,” the only survivor of a short-lived flurry of such locutions coined during the nineteenth century.)

Terms of distance and duration, such as foot and hour, are generally spelled out when accompanying numerals except in technical writing, as are designations such as Celsius and Fahrenheit; the same is true of phrases such as “miles per hour” and “pounds per square inch.” However, the abbreviations am and pm, often capitalized and/or with periods, are always acceptable, though a phrase such as “one o’clock in the morning” is appropriate for a casual reference in fiction or nonfiction.

Abbreviations are much more likely to be employed in ephemeral publications such as newspapers than in more durable materials such as books, though formality varies widely in the latter format; online usage differs as well. Ultimately, the careful writer will consult a style guide appropriate to the type of print or online publication for guidance or at least will consciously consider the visual and cognitive impact of abbreviation.

(See this post for more guidance on abbreviations, and search for “abbreviations” on DailyWritingTips.com for additional assistance.)

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12 Responses to “When to Abbreviate, Etc.”

  • Mark Nichol

    One can care but be careless at the same time, as when I mistakenly typed universal instead of <uniform, which has been corrected. Thanks for the note.

  • Mark Nichol

    Thanks for the note. The error has been corrected.

  • Sean

    I know you don’t care, but, technically, URL stands for “Uniform Resource Locator”, not “Universal …”

  • venqax

    “Oh, well, the British, Irish, Australians, etc., will just have to get used to the # sign…”

    I didn’t think he was saying the British don’t use the symbol at all, just that they don’t use it to mean number. ??. Maybe I misunderstood. It was my assumption that in any case they would not call it the pound sign–since they already have one of those. Don’t know, though.

  • Thebluebird11

    @Tony Hearn: So what do Brits call the # sign, and what do you use it for? After reading venqax’s post, I do remember hearing the term octothorpe, but nobody really calls it that; we all call it “the pound sign” (or sometimes “the number sign”). In the US, it has various functions when used on a phone keypad, and in informal contexts (eg texting) means “number” or “phone number” (usually). So for example, if I want someone to text me a phone number, I will text “txt me their #.” In that case, it means phone number, but when we write something like “Dwyane is #1,” that would be spoken as “Dwyane is number one.”
    I should mention that with the rise of Twitter, that symbol is now also called “hashtag”; although I’m TheBluebird, I’m too old for that and I don’t tweet!

  • Steve

    As for i.e. and e.g., a word of caution: use them for what you mean. Too often we see i.e. used for “for example,” for example.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, well, the British, Irish, Australians, etc., will just have to get used to the # sign because it is used so much in computer programming languages and telecommunications systems, most of which originated in America.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The area of computer communications abounds with abbreviations and acronyms, including IP (Internet Protocol), RIP (routing information protocol) understood to be RIP v.2 because RIP v.1 is long obsolete; OPSF (open shortest path first), LAN, WAN, and the most ubiquitous one of them all IBM. Thus URL has lots of company!

    I have needed to explain to foreign students (not very good at English) that RIP has another meaning in our language, and then to explain what that meaning means! RIP = Rest In Peace.
    That is not understood by people with roots in Arabic, Chinese, Farsi (Persian), Japanese, Korean, Thai, and so forth. The cultures are just different.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I thought that this article was going to be about when to write “etc.”, or “et cetera”, and maybe some other foreign phrases and abbreviations like “et al”, “en masse”, “Q.E.D.”, and so forth.

    To change the subject, according to the International System of units (the S.I.), based in Sevre, France, the abbreviations for units are not followed by a period, but there is always to be a space between the number and the unit. For example:
    12 cm, 24 km, 5.5 l (liters), 10 ha, 20 mA, 0.1 C (coulomb), 225 g, 0.33 mF (millifarads), 12 mH (millihenries), 750 J, 300 K, 2500 Nt (newtons), 100 mS (millisiemens), 0.4 T (tesla), 124 V, 200 kW, and so forth.

    Also in the S.I. are less-known units like curies, dynes, ergs, gauss, lumens, moles, ohms (whose abbreviation is the Greek letter omega), pascals, roentgens, and rads.

  • venqax

    @Tony Hearn: Thanks for the that, regarding curriculum vitae. I did not realize that vitae was not plural in that case, but realizing that curriculum is not, I probably should have. I have enough of a climb convincing my American peers that (under American rules) it is a VYE-TEE, not a VEE-TA. This actually reinforces that. A vitaE would never be a veet-a. Of course with that spelling they’ll start saying VEET-TAY and I’ll have to start all over again.

    I also did not know that the British did not use the octothorpe for “number”. It would make sense that they would not call it the “pound sign” as most Americans do, as that has an obviously different meaning the UK, but I didn’t know that they didn’t use it in general at all for that purpose. Thanks for the info.

  • Tony Hearn

    Writers please note that the number symbol “#” is largely US and not British use.

  • Tony Hearn

    Er,”curriculum vita”? “Curriculum vitae” is the singular (vitae here in the genitive case). The plural, technically, would be “curricula vitae”, but I have never met it.

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