Acronyms and initialisms in academic and non-fiction text require careful handling. While the standard practice involves defining acronyms upon first use, complexities can arise in various scenarios. This microlearning explores the more complicated instances of acronym usage, offering suggestions that will help you proofread acronyms and initialisms more effectively.
Launch the microlearning module below to learn more about acronyms and initialisms and to test your knowledge using our interactive quiz.
Alternatively, read on for a text-only version of the microlearning.
Using Acronyms and Initialisms
As proofreaders and editors, we should all know the standard way to deal with an acronym in academic and other non-fiction text:
Define the acronym upon first use, with the acronym itself following in parentheses; use the full term if it’s the only time the acronym appears in the text.
But what about when things get a little more awkward? This microlearning will cover some of the tricky acronym appearances you may have to navigate while proofreading. For anything not covered here, check the relevant style guide or follow a sensible approach and leave a comment explaining what you have done to the customer.
(Note that, for simplicity, the word “acronym” is used for both acronyms and initialisms.)
Defining Acronyms Outside the Main Text
In an academic document, you define an acronym the first time it appears in the main text. But what about all the other bits and pieces that make up an academic document?
Take a look below to see the proofreading issues that might come up.
Treat an abstract like a mini text in its own right. So, if an acronym appears once, spell it out in full; if it appears more than once, define it the first time it appears and use the acronym thereafter.
However, what happens in the abstract stays in the abstract; when the acronym appears in the main text, you will have to define it again.
Tables of Abbreviations
Some style guides recommend that you include a table of abbreviations. However, most of these guides require that you still define the acronym the first time it appears in the main text.
Tables, Figures, and Captions
In academic text, it is recommended that you define any acronym the first time it appears in a table or figure. Officially, this is so that the table can be used even if it is separated from the main text of the document.
If it works better, it’s possible to provide a list of acronyms found in the table or figure as a note underneath the table/figure.
You can also provide definitions in figure captions. For example:
Figure 1: United Kingdom (UK) Financial Services Regulators: Financial Conduct Authority (FCA); Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA)
Acronyms that appear in the caption itself (but not in the table/figure) should usually be defined even if they have already appeared in the main text (see “UK” in the example caption above).
Headings and Subheadings
Many style guides ignore how to treat acronyms in headings and subheadings.
APA 7th suggests rewording the heading/subheading to avoid the issue. If this isn’t possible, then APA supports the use of full terminology in titles and section headings for any abbreviations that need defining, with the definitions and shortened versions given in the main text.
Other style guides may permit the use of abbreviations in titles and headings, but require them to be defined both in the title/heading and when the term is introduced in the main text (that way, anyone reading the title or section heading will know what the abbreviation means without having to look it up in the text).
As always, aim for consistency and clarity for the document’s audience, and leave a comment for the customer explaining your approach, if necessary.
References, Citations, and Footnotes
Another aspect of academic text that adds extra dimensions to acronym proofreading is the referencing system. Here’s how you can deal with acronyms when they first appear in in-text citations (unless you have a style guide that specifies otherwise).
If an acronym’s first appearance in a document is in an in-text citation, define it at that point. This counts as the definition of that acronym within the main text (i.e., you do not have to define it again within the main text).
In APA 7th, for example, you would do the following:
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC, 2020) …
…”We have stayed true to our mission of protecting investors” (Securities and Exchange Commission [SEC], 2023).
Referencing guides do not seem to specify how to deal with acronyms in footnotes.
The safest option is to treat the footnotes as a separate entity to the main text (so, define the acronym the first time it appears in the footnotes, in addition to defining it in the main text, and use it in the footnotes thereafter). Here’s an example of some OSCOLA footnotes:
1 HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). ‘Tax Avoidance: Don’t Get Caught Out’ (HMRC, 2023) <https://taxavoidanceexplained.campaign.gov.uk/> accessed 11 April 2023.
2 Page v Smith  AC 155 (HL).
3 HMRC (n 1).
This guidance applies to acronyms in footnote text/organizational authors; you do not need to define acronyms in the titles of works cited.
References and Bibliographies
If the author of an entry is an organization, write its name out in full in the reference list/bibliography (don’t use the acronym), unless that organization is known solely by its acronym (e.g., EY, AT&T).
You do not need to define acronyms in the titles of the works you have cited/referenced.
Here’s an example APA 7th reference entry containing acronyms:
World Health Organization (2023, April 11). WHO at 75: Getting fit for the future. https://who.foundation/latest-updates/who-at-75-getting-fit-for-the-future/
Some referencing styles (MLA, IEEE, OSCOLA) mandate the use of certain abbreviations for journal titles and/or publishers in reference lists/bibliographies. These don’t need defining (additionally, you don’t need to introduce these abbreviations if the customer hasn’t used them, but you may wish to leave a comment).
Other Notes on Usage
Here are some other notes about acronym usage.
- Proofreading an excerpt. Often, customers will send in a chapter or excerpt from a larger text. You should bear this in mind while proofreading; in such texts, it’s sometimes better to leave an all-purpose comment asking the customer to check that all acronyms have been defined on first use. You should use your professional judgement to decide the best approach to take.
- Well-known acronyms. You may choose not to define an acronym if it’s better known as an acronym. For example, “In this role, I led the R&D department at…” Leave a single comment explaining your reasoning to the customer.
- Acronyms that become words. Acronyms that have become words are treated as such. For example, “The laser came equipped with sonar.”
- Acronyms in brands. Whether or not a brand’s name is defined depends on the type of text it appears in, who the audience is, and whether the brand is better known as the acronym or the full version of its name. For example, you would usually probably define M&S for a US audience, but not H&M. Leave a comment to the customer if you’re not sure.
- Non-academic text. Acronym use in organizational texts will often be defined by an institutional style guide; you should follow this implicitly. The approach in non-academic non-fiction text is usually a more relaxed or sector-tailored version of the approach taken in academic text.
- Fiction. In fiction, you can usually ignore the need to define acronyms (or weave their definition into the narrative text or dialogue, if necessary).
Acronyms are tricky things. The guidance here offers examples of how to deal with some of the niche proofreading issues you might come across; hopefully, it will also help you to use your professional judgement regarding other acronym-related issues.
In the absence of a definitive style guide, the main thing to keep in mind is whether the intended audience will understand the acronym used. As usual, clarity and consistency are good things to aim for.