How to Use Abbreviations (6 Top Tips)
  • 3-minute read
  • 1st March 2018

How to Use Abbreviations (6 Top Tips)

Abbreviations can be tricky, so it’s important to use them correctly. That’s why we’ve created this list of top tips about using abbreviations in your written work!

1. When to Abbreviate

You don’t need to abbreviate every long word. It’s best to save abbreviations for terms you use repeatedly, especially long words or complicated phrases. Keep in mind that using too many abbreviations can make a document hard to read. This is known as ‘alphabet soup’.

My alphabet soup just says “ooooooooooo…”

2. Acronyms and Initialisms

We’ve discussed acronyms and initialisms previously elsewhere, but here’s a quick reminder:

  • Acronyms and initialisms are abbreviations made up of the first letters in a phrase (e.g., CIA = Central Intelligence Agency; NBC = National Broadcasting Company)
  • All acronyms and initialisms should be defined on their first use by giving the full terminology followed by the abbreviated version in brackets
  • Once defined, the shortened version should be used in place of the full term

Stick to these basic rules and you should be fine!

3. Contractions

Contractions are created by combining two words. This usually involves omitting some letters, as indicated by an apostrophe:

Who will → Who’ll

Cannot → Can’t

I am → I’m

These words are common in many types of writing, but you shouldn’t use them in formal documents.

4. Latin Abbreviations

Quite a few common abbreviations are based on Latin terms. The most famous are:

E.g. (exempli gratia) = Used when giving an example

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I.e. (id est) = Used when explaining something

Etc. (et cetera) = Used to show that a list is incomplete

You’ll find even more Latin abbreviations in academic writing, especially when referencing sources.

5. Punctuation

When shortening a word, we usually add a period afterwards:

Mister → Mr.

Doctor → Dr.

September → Sept.

The main exceptions here are measurements, which are written without extra punctuation (e.g., “cm” for centimeter). The exception to this exception, however, is “in.,” which is short for “inches.” We add the extra period in this case so that the abbreviation isn’t confused for the word “in”.

With acronyms and initialisms, meanwhile, there’s usually no need to add periods between each letter. However, some people prefer to include periods, especially with “U.S.” and “U.S.A.”

It’s patriotic either way.

6. Create a List of Abbreviations

Finally, you may want to create a list of abbreviations at the start of your document. You can use this to define any abbreviations you use, giving the reader an easy point of reference. A good tip is to make a list as you go, as then you don’t miss anything.

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