Abbreviations and acronyms are convenient shortcuts for words and phrases. They’re used to save space in print and to save time in saying the entire original phrase.
An abbreviation is a shortened spelling or a contracted form of a word or phrase, which is used to represent the original. While convenient, abbreviations should only be used if they will be clear to readers.
Here are some common abbreviations: Mister (Mr.), Street (St.), Corporation (Corp.), United States (U.S. or US), miles per hour (mph), pound (weight; lb; from libra, the ancient Roman word for pound). Note that, though mph looks like it might also be an acronym, it’s not usually written in upper-case letters.
When an abbreviation is used, the full expression should be written first, then the abbreviation should follow, written in parentheses. For example: The speed limit was 25 miles per hour (mph). The reason, one assumes, is that the writer will be using mph several times, and does not want to keep writing out the full expression. Obviously, when read or spoken, the abbreviation may be read as is, when not sounding like mumbo-jumbo, or the original words are automatically substituted. So Mr. would not likely be spelled or pronounced, but would be seen as Mister.
One of the tests for using abbreviations is whether a reader or a foreigner would understand what you’re trying to communicate. For example: At 4:00 pm, Mr. Smith, Jr., was clocked at 35 mph in a 25 zone. What might someone not familiar with the abbreviations make of this?
Okay, what about whether periods should be used or not? There is no one uniform answer. It depends on the reference source and the writer. Here’s one “rule” that may be best: Defer to clarity. If the abbreviation is well known and understood (e.g., USA) no periods are needed. If writing the abbreviation makes it open to interpretation, add the period e.g., does “in” mean in or inches? “in. is clearly inches). Otherwise, writer’s choice.
“for example” and “that is”
These two terms are often mistakenly interchanged and are often written incorrectly. To understand the correct abbreviation, we have to go back to each full Latin phrase. e.g. stands for exempli gratia (meaning for the sake of example or, simply, for example). i.e. stands for id est (meaning that is or sometimes in other words). Following are examples of each, in their non-abbreviated form and then their correct abbreviated form.
Mary likes many subjects (for example, art, music, literature) becomes Mary likes many subjects (e.g., art, music, literature). Periods indicate the abbreviation, but eliminating the comma is not. No matter how clumsy this construction looks, e.g. is still an introductory phrase.
California has a nice climate—that is, it’s almost always sunny becomes California has a nice climate—ie, it’s almost always sunny. Again, the comma should remain.
This is abbreviated as etc., and stands for the Latin phrase et cetera (meaning and others). It’s also used to mean and so forth or and so on, and indicates that more similar items might have been listed, but were omitted for the sake of brevity. If one were to use periods, as with e.g. and i.e., the abbreviation would be “e.c.” (never done). Instead, the phrase is considered as a whole and is abbreviated as etc., whether in the middle or at the end of a sentence. So, for example:
I like anything natural, such as birds, trees, mountains, et cetera, but I especially like sunsets. In the abbreviated form, the sentence would be: I like anything natural, such as birds, trees, mountains, etc., but I especially like sunsets.
Note: A list starting with e.g. should not end with etc. The list serves as examples of the term (e.g., in the sentence about Mary, above, art, music and literature are listed as three of the many subjects that Mary likes. There’s no need to add etc. to emphasize the point.
This word should be abbreviated as vs., with a period.
An acronym is what looks like a word, though with all upper-case letters, which sometimes can be pronounced (OPEC) and sometimes not (ATM). An acronym is usually formed by using the initial letters of a series of words. So, OPEC stands for Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and ATM stands for “automated teller machine”. ASAP stands for “as soon as possible” and DVD for “digital video disk”.
When using less well known acronyms, a good practice is to completely spell out the first occurrence, with the shortened form following in parentheses. For example, non-governmental organization (NGO), not in my back yard (NIMBY), by the way (BTW), self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA), or radio detecting and ranging (RADAR). Since writing is supposed to be about clear communication, forcing readers to guess or have to look up such a term interferes with the effectiveness of the work. For example, one generation reads LOL as “little old lady”, while another reads it as “laugh(ing) out loud).
One of the tests for using abbreviations or acronyms is whether a reader or a foreigner would understand what you’re trying to communicate. For example, the sentence “I gotta get to an ATM ASAP” might sound like gibberish to the uninitiated. Many authors take for granted acronyms like IBM (International Business Machines), NBC (National Broadcasting Company), and FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation). But this presents the real risk. What if your readers don’t have the same list of memorized acronyms that you do? And oh, by the way, this list grows longer every day.
While abbreviations and acronyms can be very convenient, good authors should try to use them in moderation, especially less-well-known ones. And, with the exception of very common abbreviations (e.g., Dr., Ms., mph), if the work or phrase that’s shortened is used only once, don’t bother. The most effective use of abbreviations and acronyms is to save writing it out each time it appears.
Regarding what article to use in front of an abbreviation or acronym, the best “rule” is to us the one you’d use when speaking. Examples: She earned a PhD. He earned an MA in English. IBM is very well known.
This is a topic that almost warrants a small book. But hopefully, the above provides some food for thought when using abbreviations and acronyms.
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