Used well, abbreviations add clarity, reducing clutter so readers can concentrate on the meaning of a text. In this article, Cathy Tingle looks at the basics of abbreviation.
An abbreviation, a shortening, can be a wonderful device that saves time, effort and space. If in the 1974 hit ‘Killer Queen’ Freddie Mercury had sung ‘Dynamite with a light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation beam’, it wouldn’t have got to number 2 in the UK pop charts. With that wording, it would struggle to reach even the end of the song in a timely fashion.
‘Laser’, the word actually used in the lyrics (thank goodness), is an acronym. But how is an acronym different from an initialism? And how does the punctuation of a contraction differ from that used with an abbreviation? (Hang on, isn’t every shortening an abbreviation?)
It’s important to understand the different types of abbreviation because it might be necessary to style them differently. In his CIEP guide to punctuation, Gerard M-F Hill usefully lists four types – the four I’ve listed below, although in a different order – under the umbrella of ‘short forms’. This is a useful term because it avoids confusing abbreviations in general with a specific type of word shortening that is also often called an abbreviation. However, Fowler’s, New Hart’s Rules and others use ‘abbreviation’ in both ways, so I’m doing the same.
Many people confuse acronyms with initialisms, and this might be because ‘acronym’ sounds impressively technical and is quite a fun word to say, so people feel like applying it more widely than they should. Acronym. Acronym. Nice. Anyway, what are referred to as acronyms are often initialisms: BBC, NHS, CPR, HMRC. Only the first letter of each (main) word is kept, and the result is pronounced as a series of letters.
The main style decision to make with an initialism is whether to include full points (CPR or C.P.R.?). Such points have lingered in some iterations of US style (page 236 of The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz is enlightening on this matter); British style goes mostly without. However, there are instances, such as a.m. and p.m., and e.g. and i.e., where points are used more widely, even in British style. If you are using points, remember two main things:
- Include all of them. It’s fairly common in unedited text to see ‘e.g’ or ‘eg.’, for example.
- If your initialism appears at the end of a sentence, don’t include a full stop as well, otherwise you have two points in a row. One is entirely sufficient.
An acronym is a narrower category. Simply, it’s an initialism that you can pronounce as a word: OPEC, UNESCO, NASA, RADA, Aids, radar. You’ll notice that in this list we have both ‘RADA’ (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and ‘radar’ (‘RAdio Detection And Ranging’), with their differences in capitalisation. You can tell that ‘radar’ was always meant to be a catchy acronym from its inclusion of the first two letters from the first word and ‘A’ for ‘and’ (which is not classed as a main word) in the line-up of initials. If it were a true initialism it would be ‘RDR’. In the evolution of an acronym, particularly if it’s a term rather than a name, after being all caps it can then progress to being treated as a regular proper noun with a leading cap (as with ‘Aids’). Certain acronyms, like ‘radar’, ‘laser’ and ‘scuba’, then make the final change into a common noun, fully lower case.
After an acronym has become a common noun, the spelled-out version sometimes falls away, particularly if the spelling out doesn’t tell us as much as, for example, the usual dictionary definition of the word. Cambridge Dictionaries defines ‘radar’ as ‘a system that uses radio waves to find the position of objects that cannot be seen’ which is more helpful than its original long name.
I tend to imagine a snipping or chopping action with these, because you lose one end of the word, sometimes both. Some of them, like ‘co.’ for ‘company’ and ‘etc.’ for ‘etcetera’, generally attract a full point, as does ‘ed.’ for editor in many academic texts. Others, like ‘bio’ for ‘biological’ or ‘biography’, generally don’t include points in British modern styles. As familiarity with these shortened words grows – including those that mean more than one thing – the point becomes less necessary.
Examples of where the front of the word has been chopped are ‘bus’ for ‘autobus’ and ‘phone’ for ‘telephone’. In ‘flu’ for ‘influenza’, both ends have been chopped. Here, apostrophes originally indicated missing letters, but as with full points these have dropped away with time and use.
In a contraction, the beginning and the end of the word or phrase are included. What’s missing is something in the middle. Informal words such as ‘don’t’ or ‘can’t’ are contractions, but they’re relatively straightforward. They use an apostrophe – for now, at least.
Other contractions are ‘Dr’ for ‘doctor’ and ‘St’ for ‘Saint’. In British styles these generally don’t attract a full point; they are more likely to in US styles. In words like ‘eds’ for ‘editors’ strictly a point shouldn’t appear, in British styles at least. However, New Hart’s Rules says that this can make things look inconsistent, particularly when constructions like ‘vol.’ and ‘vols’ (volume and volumes) are seen side by side, so some styles retain the point for these types of contraction.
One contraction that retains a point is usefully mentioned in New Hart’s Rules: ‘no. (= numero, Latin for number)’. A good reason for this point could be the risk of its confusion with the more common word ‘no’.
As an editorial professional you have to navigate all these types of abbreviation and their different conventions and styles, plus any exceptions and possibly the reasons for them, depending on the text you’re working on.
What else should you consider?
Bring in the reader
Now it’s time to consider your abbreviations from the point of view of the reader. Ask yourself:
How familiar will the reader be with this abbreviation? Those that have become part of the language, like ‘i.e.’, ‘e.g.’ and ‘etc.’, most adult readers will know. A British audience is likely to know NHS and BBC. Dictionaries are a good basic guide to which abbreviations are now in common usage and therefore may not need further explanation. But remember you should always cater for your least knowledgeable reader. As Einsohn and Schwartz say, ‘When in doubt, spell it out.’ The most usual way of doing this is to include the long version then the short one in brackets: ‘National Health Service (NHS)’. If there are a number of initialisms and acronyms that the reader is likely to be unfamiliar with, consider creating a list of abbreviations that they can easily refer to.
Do I need all of these abbreviations? If you’re using an uncommon abbreviation just once or twice, it’s probably better including the long version only. Also, remember that text littered with initialisms and acronyms very quickly loses the advantage that a few abbreviations bring: it becomes uninviting to look at and difficult to read. This is the advice the Economist Style Guide gives:
After the first mention, try not to repeat the abbreviation too often; so write the agency rather than the IAEA, the party rather than the KMT, to avoid spattering the page with capital letters. And prefer chief executive, boss or manager to CEO.
Is the abbreviation near to where it plays its main role in the text? It’s not worth abbreviating a term the first time it’s used if there isn’t another mention of that abbreviation for pages and pages. Wait until you get to its first real entrance, where it’s discussed at more length or in more detail, and introduce its shortened version there.
At the sharp end of language
Abbreviations are an element of language that can change quickly, so you should keep up to date with the latest stylistic conventions for each shortened word or term you’re editing. However, in the end there are only a limited number of options for an abbreviation, all of them seen and written about already. Your task is to work out which option is applicable and appropriate. Here are some useful resources to equip you for the challenge.
Economist Style Guide. 2018. 12th edition. Profile Books.
Einsohn, A. and Schwartz, M. 2019. The Copyeditor’s Handbook. 4th edition. University of California Press, chapter 9.
Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, ed. J. Butterfield. 2015. Oxford University Press. See entries for abbreviations, acronym, contractions, full stops (2).
Hill, G. M-F. 2021. Punctuation: A guide for editors and proofreaders. CIEP, pp9–10.
McCulloch, G. 2019. Because Internet. Riverhead Books.
New Hart’s Rules. 2014. Oxford University Press, chapter 10.
Cathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, is a copyeditor, proofreader, tutor and CIEP information team member.
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.
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Posted by Belinda Hodder, blog assistant.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.