Using Acronyms in Academic Writing
  • 5-minute read
  • 3rd September 2016

Using Acronyms in Academic Writing

With the limited characters available on platforms like Twitter, we’re used to using acronyms and abbreviations in communication. After all, “IMO ppl uz 2 mNE lng wrds” is much more concise than “In my opinion, people use too many long words.”

However, in academic writing, improper use of acronyms can detract from the clarity of your writing. In this post, we cover how to use acronyms in a college paper.

What Are Acronyms and Abbreviations?

Acronyms and abbreviations are both shortened forms of long terms or phrases. However, while all acronyms are abbreviations, there is an important difference:

  • Abbreviations are shortened versions of words (e.g., when “Jan” is used in place of “January”).
  • Acronyms are abbreviations where the first letters from each word in a phrase spell out a new term (e.g., when “National Aeronautics and Space Administration” is shortened to “NASA”).

In addition, there is a difference between an “acronym” and an “initialism”. Acronyms are pronounced as a single word (e.g., NASA). But each letter in an initialism is pronounced separately (e.g., FBI).

Since “acronym” is commonly used for both of these, we will continue using this term below. However, it’s worth remembering that there is a difference!

When to Use Acronyms

The main consideration is clarity. To be specific, we shorten long technical terms to make our work easier to read, especially if they’re used repeatedly.

For instance, writing “MRI” instead of “magnetic resonance imaging” is a good idea if using this term a lot, since it’s easier to read.

If a term is only used once or twice, there’s usually no need to use an acronym. You should also avoid using too many abbreviations since text dense with acronyms and technical jargon can be difficult to read.

Introducing Acronyms

If using an acronym, you must introduce it with full terminology in the first instance so your reader knows what it means. You can do this by giving the full term first and the shortened version in parentheses:

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has existed since 1949.

Once introduced, you can use the shortened version in place of the full term:

The idea of NATO is to ensure security via a system of collective defense.

To ensure clarity, try to use the acronym consistently throughout your document. This means you should not switch between the full and abbreviated versions of the same term unless there is a reason to do so (e.g., you have not used the abbreviation in a long time and need to remind the reader).

Introducing an acronym isn’t necessary if the term is in common use, such as with “laser” (originally short for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”).

However, even with well-known terms, providing a definition can be helpful, since many acronyms have more than one meaning. One example is the long-running battle for use of “WWF”, in which the conservation group grappled (pun fully intended) with the professional wrestling organization now known as the “WWE.”

Although “WWF” is a recognizable term, defining it in the first use would remove ambiguity. It would then be clear that you’re discussing the “World Wildlife Fund” and not the former employers of Stone Cold Steve Austin.

“I will open a can of whoop-ass on any panda that gets in my way.”

An important distinction, we’re sure you’ll agree.

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Capitalizing Acronyms and Initialisms

As a rule, American English capitalizes every letter in acronyms and initialisms:

The country joined NATO in 1968.

The CIA has investigated the claims twice.

However, some style guides (mostly those that focus on British English) recommend only capitalizing the first letter of acronyms (i.e., abbreviations pronounced as a single word). For instance:

The country joined Nato in 1968.

Look out for this if you’re reading (or writing for) a British publication.

Punctuating Abbreviations

Most acronyms and abbreviations are written without punctuation, as shown in the examples above. However, some style guides recommend using a period between letters in short initialisms, such as “U.S.A.” and “U.K.” It is also common to use periods in lowercase abbreviations, such as “a.m.,” “p.m.,” “e.g.,” and “i.e.”

Unless you’re using a style guide that suggests adding periods to certain abbreviations, this is usually a matter of preference. But make sure to apply a consistent style! For example, either of the following would be acceptable:

He was born in the UK, but he lives in the USA now.

He was born in the U.K., but he lives in the U.S.A. now.

But mixing these punctuation styles would be incorrect:

He was born in the UK, but he lives in the U.S.A. now.

Make sure to think about how to punctuate abbreviations in your own writing.

Expert Proofreading Services

The rules for using acronyms can vary slightly. As such, if you are using a style guide, you should check what it says about abbreviations and acronyms.

Whichever style you’re using, though, our expert editors can help! Make sure your writing is always error-free by getting it checked with Proofed. Upload a free trial document today to find out more.

Comments (41)
30th April 2020 at 21:37
What is the practice is you have a term with a possible plural? For example, Test Limitation(s) (TL(s))
    1st May 2020 at 10:29
    Hi, Kathy. There's not one definite solution (unless you're working with a style guide that advises on this), but we would generally advise against the double parentheses in that situation. Would it be possible to introduce the term as either singular or plural rather than with the "(s)"? That is, as just "Test Limitation (TL)" or "Test Limitations (TLs)"? If not, you could try "Test Limitation(s) (TL[s])."
Marissa Heintzman
22nd July 2020 at 16:37
Hi there, How should you introduce an acronym or initialism if the first instance in which the full term appears is in either a) a quotation or b) as part of the official name of an organization? For example, if I needed to introduce "IP" as an initialism for "intellectual property," but the first several uses of "intellectual property" only appeared within quotations and official document and organization titles. Would I insert the parenthetical definition into the title or quotation? Or simply wait for the first normal use of the full phrase to introduce the initialism? Thanks!
    23rd July 2020 at 10:11
    Hi, Marissa. Unless you're using a style guide that has other advice, the simplest solution is probably the one you suggest of putting the full term in brackets after its first use in a quotation or title (e.g., "...the discourse on IP [intellectual property] has recently..."). You can then continue using the abbreviation in your own text whenever it next appears.
Sampath Kumar
24th October 2020 at 06:31
Use of abbreviations and acronyms may be useful for easy reading provided the abbreviations and acronyms are well known to everyone. If not, use of these create confusion in the mind of the reader
    24th October 2020 at 11:28
    Hi, Sampath. That can definitely be true, but that's why we recommend introducing acronyms and initialisms with full terminology the first time you use them (or even having a list of abbreviations at the start of your document if you're using a lot).
18th November 2020 at 23:25
When is it appropriate to first abbreviate a term? Would the introduction be an appropriate section or should you wait until your first "real" paragraph to do so?
    19th November 2020 at 10:27
    Hi, Dominique. It may depend on what you're writing (e.g., the length and overall format of the document), but it would usually be fine to introduce an abbreviation in the introduction of, say, an essay or research paper.
Heather Bobs
4th December 2020 at 14:45
You mentioned that it is best not to switch between the acronym and the full term. I am helping a friend with his economics paper, and he thinks it is OK to use monetary policy and MP, etc. interchangeably. I can't find reference to any rule in CMOS or anywhere else. Do you know of any?
    4th December 2020 at 17:15
    Hi, Heather. I don't know if there are any style guides that proscribe variation strictly (most will say that it is okay to reintroduce the full terminology to ensure clarity, such when there is a large gap between uses of the abbreviation). The comment in the post was more a general note on clarity, since switching between the full and shortened terminology too much could be confusing for the reader.
Kim Talbot
28th December 2020 at 10:34
Should you introduce acronyms within the text even when you have a list of acronyms?
    28th December 2020 at 11:50
    Hi, Kim. We'd generally suggest introducing acronyms the first time you use them in the text even if you also have a list of abbreviations (it just saves people having to check the list every time you use a new abbreviations, while still having the list available for reference if required). There's no universal rule about this, though, and you may want to check your style guide for advice if you have one.
29th December 2020 at 19:19
Hi Is it necessary to introduce the acronym both in the abstract and the introduction or it's enough to be introduced just once in the abstract?
    2nd January 2021 at 11:30
    The exact rules for this may depend on the style guide you're following, but generally it is best not to use abbreviations in the abstract of a paper (unless they are everyday abbreviations that readers would be expected to recognize, such as units of measurement accompanying a figure). If you do include an acronym in an abstract, though, most style guides require authors to define it both in the abstract and the first time it is used in the main paper.
Charissa Lamont
26th January 2021 at 22:09
Hi can you create an acronym and use it in a dissertation if it is not known or established for e.g. Design Build Highway Infrastructure Projects (DBHIP) but will be used throughout the document?
    27th January 2021 at 09:46
    Hi, Clarissa. As long as it's a term you use frequently and you define the full terminology clearly on the first use, then it is fine to create your own acronyms.
21st April 2021 at 13:00
Thanks for this! What would you suggest if the first time you introduce an acronym, it's expansion is in plural or possessive form? For example, if "USP" means "U.S. Person," and your text read "The rights of U.S. Persons," would you add "(USP)" or "(USPs)" to introduce the acronym? Similar question for "A U.S. Person's rights"; would you add "(USP)" or "(USP's)" after "U.S. Person's"?
    22nd April 2021 at 09:06
    Hi, Elise. The standard forms in those cases would be "The rights of U.S. persons (USPs) and "A U.S. person's (USP's) rights."
Nikki C
22nd April 2021 at 22:33
Hi! What would you suggest when one acronym is used to define two different things in the same document? For example "user must follow the Interconnect Drawing (ICD) or the Interface Control Document (ICD)". It is the first appearance of both terms in the document. The acronym (ICD) appears a few times after this throughout the rest of the document. In the acronym list, two entries are provided for ICD. Is there an official rule that states both instances should be defined separately in the acronym list? Or do you define it in the acronym list as "ICD - Interconnect Drawing/Interface Control Document"? Or is there some other method used to provide the definitions in the document and also in the acronym list?
    23rd April 2021 at 09:56
    Hi, Nikki. As a rule, you wouldn't want to use the same acronym for two things, so I'd suggest changing one of them. Since the initials of "Interconnect Drawing" are "ID," too, it would make sense to change that one (assuming you're not using "ID" elsewhere in the document).
      11th August 2021 at 11:16
      What about having official acronyms that we cannot change like Unified Power Format (UPF), and User-Plane Function (UPF)?
      11th August 2021 at 17:13
      Hi, Alexander. In what sense are they official? As in, you're using a style guide that recommends using the same acronym for both terms? That seems like it is probably an error, if so, so I would still suggest either: a) amending one acronym in some way (e.g., a very minimal change might be to use "UPF" and "U-PF," preserving the hyphen from "user-plane function" so there is at least some difference between them); or b) just using the full terminology for one term, ideally whichever one is used least. Both of these would prevent ambiguity, which is typically the most important factor in these cases.
Aileen Hampton
28th June 2021 at 19:38
If an acronym is being created for a term which is not already capitalized, should the term be capitalized for the introduction?
    30th June 2021 at 09:18
    Hi, Aileen. You don't need to capitalize the full term unless it would usually be capitalized, just the acronym.
27th July 2021 at 11:04
I'm writing a 12 page assignment on Information Technology (IT), with 3 sub-topics. I have stated what IT stands for in the Introduction. Do I have to restate what IT is when writing the sub topics?
    27th July 2021 at 16:53
    If it is all one document and the usage is unambiguous, you should be fine (especially since "IT" is such as widely used term in everyday English anyway).
Inês Machado
29th September 2021 at 18:13
Hi, my report includes acronyms of institutions of foreign countries. Should I use the original foreign name and indicate an acronym for this or should I translate the institution name to English and create an acronym in English. Thank you very much in advance for your help!!!
    30th September 2021 at 08:30
    Hi, Inês. Unless you're following a particular style guide (in which case, have a look for advice on translating names of institutions), it'll be your choice as to whether to translate the names you're abbreviating (and thus whether to base the abbreviations on the original names or their translations). As long as it's all clear and consistent, either approach should be fine.
24th January 2022 at 22:49
If a title (e.g. The Unified Housing Developments) would normally be a plural, would the article after its acronym (TUHD) remain plural, or would it be singular?
    25th January 2022 at 10:21
    Hi, Lorelei. Can you clarify what you're asking? An "article" in grammatical terms usually refers to "the," "a," or "an," so they're not singular or plural and wouldn't usually come after an acronym or initialism. But if you're creating a plural initialism, you would usually retain the plural "s" and treat the whole term as plural (although you wouldn't usually include "the" in the abbreviation since it is an article that serves the grammatical function of identifying something as a specific entity rather than part of the name of the thing being abbreviated): e.g., "The UHDs are currently underfunded..." or similar.
Parvathy Nair
9th March 2022 at 08:24
If I am only using an acronym or abrrev once in an article, should I put the expansion before or after the acronym or abrrev?
    9th March 2022 at 09:24
    Hi, Parvathy. If you're only using a term once in an article, there's usually no need to abbreviate it. If you want to include the abbreviation, though, it should still be given in parentheses after the full term.
10th March 2022 at 08:29
How would I define an acronym with explanation in it? For example, "the drawing is provided by MC's in-house team." I wanted to define "MC" as "management company (client)".
    10th March 2022 at 09:14
    Hi, Jane. As explained in the post, and assuming you're not using a specific style guide, you would usually give the full terminology on the first usage and then give the abbreviated version in parentheses: i.e., “The drawing is provided by the management company's (MC’s) in-house team.”
      11th March 2022 at 01:44
      what if I wanted to also include (client) in it to further explain management company?
      11th March 2022 at 15:42
      In that case, you can probably just add "client's" before "management company's" in the main text. We could probably offer more specific advice if we could see the document in question, as ultimately the clarity of the abbreviation will depend on the context (e.g., where you use it, how often it appears, whether you're using it to distinguish the client's management company from other management companies or as shorthand for "management company" in general). So, if you need further advice, feel free to submit a document for proofreading here:
Richard Janosy
29th June 2022 at 11:01
I have a question regarding the acronym SWOT. I know it would be proper to introduce it in a document as "a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis" as described in this article. However, is it the same in business writing? I have never seen SWOT introduced in this way in business writing. Mostly, I see it introduced in an explanatory way, for example: "a SWOT analysis, which stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, was conducted ...". Is this an acceptable way of introducing such an acronym in business writing (not academic)?
    29th June 2022 at 17:11
    Hi, Richard. There aren't any hard rules on this (in academic, business, or any other type of writing). The first factor to consider is whether you're using a particular style guide or sheet (either a major style guide like The AP Stylebook or an in-house style sheet for a company). If so, you should check it for any guidelines on introducing acronyms. The other key factor, especially if you're not using a specific style guide, is whether your intended audience will understand the abbreviation: e.g., if everyone reading your writing will definitely understand what "SWOT analysis" means, then providing a definition would be unnecessary. However, if we're assuming that some members of your target audience may not be familiar with the term, then defining the acronym would be wise. Personally, I would suggest using the approach described here of giving the full terminology first and then the abbreviation in parentheses as this is usually the most efficient option (e.g., you won't have to add the extra "which stands for" clause and break the flow of your main sentence). However, if you're not using a specific style guide, this is purely a matter of preference. And if you prefer to explain the definition after giving the abbreviation, or you think that doing so will be clearer for your readers, that should be fine.
      Richard Janosy
      30th June 2022 at 05:19
      Thank you
17th August 2022 at 18:15
Hi -- I spotted a typo in your description of the difference between acronyms and abbreviations : "However, it’s worth remember that there is a difference!" This should be "... it's worth remembering ..." There are other alternatives, but this is the most natural sounding one. You're welcome :)
    24th August 2022 at 12:15
    Oops! Well spotted! Thank you for that - it should say "it's worth remembering" so we'll get that fixed :)

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