Acronyms and Abbreviations in Academic Writing: A Quick Guide
Abbreviations, acronyms, and Latin expressions can all be found in academic and scientific articles. But as a writer, it can be puzzling to know exactly when and how to use abbreviations and acronyms in formal academic publications. Let’s learn what types of abbreviations there are, what the different style manuals have to say about them, and when you should and shouldn’t include them in your scientific paper.
What is an Abbreviation?
An abbreviation is a word that has been shortened from its original longer form. There are several different types of abbreviations.
Acronyms. An acronym is an abbreviation made from the first letter of each word in a name or phrase. Acronyms are pronounced like a word. NASA, which is short for National Aeronautics and Space Administration and pronounced “Nah-suh,” is one well-known acronym. UNICEF, which stands for United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund and is pronounced “you-nuh-seff,” is another example.
Initialisms. An initialism is similar to an acronym because it is an abbreviation that uses the first letter of each word in a name or phrase. Unlike acronyms, however, the letters of an initialism are pronounced individually. FBI, which is short for Federal Bureau of Investigations, is an initialism. UK (United Kingdom) and USA (United States of America) are also initialisms.
Contractions. A contraction is when two words are combined for ease with an apostrophe. Common examples of contractions include don’t (do not), aren’t (are not), and let’s (let us).
Latin abbreviations. Latin abbreviations are commonly used in academia and law. Common latin abbreviations used in English writing are etc. (et cetera, “and so on”), e.g. (exempli gratia, “for example”), i.e. (id est, “in other words”), and et al. (et alii, “and others”).
Titles, measurements, and dates. Titles (Dr. for Doctor, Rev. for Reverend), measurement units (cm for centimeter, kg for kilogram), and days (Feb. for February, Fri. for Friday) can all be abbreviated.
Using Abbreviations Properly
Before you begin using abbreviations in academic writing, there are a few rules you need to know. There are three main things to keep in mind when using abbreviations in an academic or scientific paper. These are spacing, capitalization, and punctuation. It is important to note that, like many other aspects of writing, the rules are sometimes different in the US and UK variations of English.
- Spacing. For measurement units, there should be a space between the number and the unit. The unit is written after the number.
Correct: Mumbai had received 11 mm of rain by 6 pm.
Incorrect: Mumbai had received 11mm of rain by 6pm.
- Capitalization. Initialisms and acronyms should be written in all capital letters.
Correct: The National Health Insurance Service (NHIS) seized Jimin’s $4.7 million dollar apartment for failure to pay premiums.
Incorrect: The NHIS (National Health Insurance Service) seized Jimin’s $4.7 million dollar apartment for failure to pay premiums.
Note that if you are abbreviating a phrase that is not a proper noun (name of an institution, organization, etc.), then that phrase should not be capitalized when it is written prior to the abbreviation. For example, if you were introducing BP as an abbreviation for blood pressure, you would write “blood pressure (BP),” not “Blood Pressure (BP).”
- Punctuation. Generally, periods are used with latin abbreviations as well as dates. In US English, titles are followed by a period (Dr.), while in UK English, the period is omitted (Dr). Initialisms and acronyms generally don’t use periods (we write USSR rather than U.S.S.R.). Contractions use an apostrophe.
How Can I Use Abbreviations in Academic Writing?
Now that you know how to use abbreviations, you may be wondering if and when you can use abbreviations in academic writing. You definitely can use abbreviations in academic writing if you keep the following rules in mind!
- Spell out the full phrase or term the first time you use it in your paper and include the abbreviation in parentheses. You can use the abbreviation each time after that.
- Don’t abbreviate everything. It is fine to abbreviate technical terms or phrases used repeatedly throughout your writing, but only if you use them more than a few times! The Chicago Manual of Style advises abbreviating a term when it is used five or more times, while the APA only asks that you use an abbreviation if the term is used three or more times. The AMA guidelines suggest that words that are short and easy to write should not be abbreviated at all.
- Provide a list of abbreviations for your reader. Especially if you are writing a thesis, an academic article or a monograph, including a list of abbreviations used at the beginning will give your reader an easy reference.
- Avoid abbreviations in your paper abstract. While abbreviations are perfectly acceptable in the text of your paper, they should be avoided in your abstract as much as possible.
- Avoid contractions. Contractions in English are considered informal, and should therefore generally be avoided in academic writing.
- Minimize the use of latin abbreviations. It is fine to include parenthetical i.e. and e.g. here and there, but in general, it is preferred to simply write out “for example” or “in other words.” Researchers should specifically note that ending sentences with etc. in academic writing is frowned upon, and frequent use of this term is perceived as lazy writing.
- Know how to make initialisms and acronyms plural. You can pluralize abbreviations by adding a lowercase “s” at the end. CEOs, RNs, and NEATs are all examples of correct plural abbreviations.
- Be consistent! Inconsistent abbreviations can confuse the reader and make your paper appear poorly written. If you abbreviate a word, make sure you use the same abbreviation throughout the text.
How Can I Avoid Making Abbreviation Mistakes?
In addition to following the tips and tricks above, you should always consult the relevant style manual when you are writing your academic or scientific paper to minimize any abbreviation errors. Another option is to use an AI grammar checker like Trinka. Trinka not only checks for grammar and spelling errors, it can also highlight inconsistent abbreviation use and makes sure that your paper adheres to a specific citation style. Abbreviations are a great way to make your paper more readable or adhere to a limited word count, so don’t be afraid to incorporate them into your academic writing today.