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6.3: Abbreviations and Acronyms

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    Abbreviations (the shortened form of a word or phrase) and acronyms (words formed from the initial letters of a phrase) are commonly used in technical writing. In some fields, including chemistry, medicine, computer science, and geographic information systems, acronyms are used so frequently that the reader can feel lost in an alphabet soup. However, the proper use of these devices enhances the reading process, fostering fluid readability and efficient comprehension.

    Some style manuals devote entire chapters to the subject of abbreviations and acronyms, and your college library no doubt contains volumes that you can consult when needed. Here, we provide just a few principles you can apply in using abbreviations and acronyms.

    Abbreviations

    • Typically, we abbreviate social titles (like Ms. and Mr.) and professional titles (like Dr., Rev.).
    • Titles of degrees should be abbreviated when following someone’s name. However, in resumes and cover letters, you should avoid abbreviations
      • Gloria Morales-Myers, PhD
      • I received a Bachelor of Arts in 2014.
    • Most abbreviations should be followed with a period (Mar. for March), except those representing units of measure (mm for millimeter).
    • Typically, do not abbreviate geographic names and countries in text (i.e., write Saint Cloud rather than St. Cloud). However, these names are usually abbreviated when presented in “tight text” where space can be at a premium, as in tables and figures.
    • Use the ampersand symbol (&) in company names if the companies themselves do so in their literature, but avoid using the symbol as a narrative substitute for the word and in your text.
    • In text, spell out addresses (Third Avenue; the Chrysler Building) but abbreviate city addresses that are part of street names (Central Street SW).
    • Try to avoid opening a sentence with an abbreviation; instead, write the word out.

    Acronyms

    • With few exceptions, present acronyms in full capital letters (FORTRAN; NIOSH). Some acronyms, such as scuba and radar, are so commonly used that they are not capitalized.
    • Unless they appear at the end of a sentence, do not follow acronyms with a period.
      • NOAA is a really great organization.
      • I want to work for the USGS.
    • Acronyms can be pluralized with the addition of a lowercase s
      • Please choose between these three URLs.
    • Acronyms can be made possessive with an apostrophe followed by a lowercase s:
      • The DOD’s mandate will be published today.
    • As subjects, acronyms should be treated as singulars, even when they stand for plurals; therefore, they require a singular verb
      • NASA is committed to . . .
    • Always write out the first in-text reference to an acronym, followed by the acronym itself written in capital letters and enclosed by parentheses. Subsequent references to the acronym can be made just by the capital letters alone. For example:
      • Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a rapidly expanding field. GIS technology . . .
    • The acronym US can be used as an adjective (US citizen), but United States should be used when you are using it as a noun.

    Spelling, Capitalization, and Punctuation

    Different abbreviations and acronyms are treated differently. You can review this PDF to check the proper treatment of some commonly used abbreviations and acronyms. For a much more detailed listing of abbreviations and acronyms, you can check in the back pages of many dictionaries, or consult the free online version of the United States Government Printing Office Style Manual.

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