6 Simple Steps to Becoming a Confident Abbreviation User (CAU)

by Jessie Hale

Published at 2013-08-02

From the Jersey Shore (anyone up for GTL?) to high government offices (the GOP signed an MOA with the DED!), abbreviations are handy little tools that save space and time. But they can trip up even experienced writers. When to use them? When not to use them? Capitals or lowercase?


More like ACK!ronym, am I right? Take a deep breath and follow these six simple rules for abbreviating, and you’ll be C&C (cool & collected) in no time.


1.       Know Your Abbreviations


There are three main types of abbreviations: acronyms (abbreviations that are read as single words, like UNICEF); initialisms (abbreviations read as series of letters, like DNA); and contractions (abbreviations that include the first and last letters of the full word, like amt.). File that away for your next trivia game.


Related: Still confused? Check out our editorial services for help with abbreviations and all your other writing concerns!


2.       Don’t spell out the full name if the abbreviation is familiar


Many terms and organizations are better known by their abbreviations than their full names. For instance, did you know that “scuba” is an acronym? It stands for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.” But referring to someone as a “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba)-diver” creates a confusing mouthful. Similarly, abbreviations like UNICEF, AIDS, NASDAQ, and DNA will be familiar enough to most readers without needing to include their full names. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for this, though you can consult a good dictionary; if the abbreviation is in there as a stand-alone entry, you can probably get away with using it alone. 


3.       Don’t use the abbreviation unless you plan on referring to it again


Abbreviations are very useful, but only when you need to refer multiple times to the entity it stands for. If you’re only referring to it once, the acronym just takes up space. For instance, let’s say I’m writing about anti-poverty organizations in Toronto, and I want to name a few examples. I might name Toronto Anti-Poverty (TAP) and Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL). Both organizations have great, easy-to-read acronyms, but unless I’ll be bringing them both up again several times (The Chicago Manual of Style says five or more), they’re not serving any purpose. Save your word count and take ‘em out.


4.       Know when to capitalize and when to lowercase


Acronyms and initialisms are most often spelled out in all caps (CEO, JPEG, HIV); contractions are normally lowercase (can’t, amt.). Look the term up in the dictionary or (if you’re referring to an organization) online to find out which is preferable. As with many mechanical writing rules, the most important thing is to be consistent. Keep a list of all the abbreviations you’re using and make sure you treat them the same every time they appear. (This goes for the use of periods, too; you can call it the US or the U.S., but never both!)


5.       Don’t overuse…


They say you can never have too much of a good thing. This applies to money, maple syrup, and President’s Choice brand burger-flavoured potato chips (just me?), but not to abbreviations. Don’t pack your sentence too full of them or it will become messy-looking and hard to read. For example: “TD CEO Norman Fink and TMX VP Linda McSweeney addressed FY13’s APY at the AGM yesterday.” (Does that sentence even make sense? I don’t know much about stocks.) If your document is looking a bit over-salted with abbreviations, use your judgment and choose a few to spell out. If you need to use a lot of different abbreviations, it may be worthwhile to include a list of them and what they stand for in an appendix.


6.       …but don’t underuse, either


Let’s say I refer to Toronto Anti-Poverty (TAP) seven times in chapter 1, and then it doesn’t come up again until chapter 7. As a courtesy to my readers, who don’t want to have to flip through the pages to figure out what I’m talking about, I’ll spell out the organization’s full name again. Be careful here; if you’re very familiar with a subject — and if you’re writing about it, you probably should be — it’s easy to forget that not everyone is as well-versed in its related abbreviations as you. Have a less-familiar friend read what you’ve written to be safe. Or, better yet, hire an experienced copy editor to help you out!


Go forth and abbreviate with confidence!




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