How to correctly use abbreviations and acronyms/initialism

First, let us define the terms abbreviation, acronym and initialism. According to macquariedictionary.com.au, abbreviation is ‘a shortened or contracted form of a word or phrase, used as a symbol for the whole’, acronym is ‘a word formed from the initial letters of a sequence of words, as radar (from radio detection and ranging) or ANZAC (from Australian and New Zealand Army Corps)’ and initialism is ‘an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of a sequence of words, as ACTU (from Australian Council of Trade Unions) or LPG (from liquefied petroleum gas)’. Given these definitions, we can conclude that acronyms and initialisms are forms of abbreviation. And the difference between an acronym and an initialism is that we pronounce the letters in an acronym as a word, and we spell out the letters in an initialism.

Click here to download Australian style guidelines on using abbreviations

Now that we understand the definition of these words, the question is: Can we use abbreviations in academic writing?

The answer is YES. But there are several things to remember when doing so:

Only abbreviate terms that appear four or more times in the paper.

Do not abbreviate terms that appear fewer than three times after their first use. Your readers may find it hard to remember what a term means if it is not used often.

However, if a long, cumbersome term is repeated frequently, abbreviating it will make reading your paper easier. For example, if the research is about post-traumatic stress disorder, this term is likely to be repeated multiple times in the paper. It would make more sense, in terms of readability, time and space, to use the initialism ‘PTSD’ instead of ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ over and over.

How to correctly use abbreviations and acronyms_initialism title

What else should I consider when using abbreviations?

Is your paper overflowing with abbreviations? If so, your readers may have a hard time remembering what all the abbreviations stand for, so it is best to abbreviate only the terms that appear very frequently.

Could the abbreviation be misinterpreted because it is also used to abbreviate another term that will be more recognisable to some readers? Acronyms and initialisms can have several meanings. For example, WWF used to mean something to wrestling fans. Now, one is more likely to think ‘panda’ when reading WWF. Though NSFW means National Schools Film Week to some people in the United Kingdom, it is more commonly known as a warning for content best not viewed in a public setting such as an office.

How do I introduce abbreviations?

When referring to a term or name of an organisation for the first time, always spell it out and then add the abbreviated name beside it. For example, ‘The American Psychological Association (APA) has set a writing style guide for academic documents. It is generally referred to as the APA style’. Once a term has been abbreviated, use the abbreviated form consistently from then on.

Save text speak for text messages.

Never 4get that ur adviser will not LOL over ur paper full of IM abbr. Abbreviations we use in social media or text messaging is inappropriate for academic writing.

Our aim is to make readers easily understand what we write, and proper use of abbreviations can help us achieve that. But incorrect use, or overuse, of abbreviations may confuse rather than help. So when in doubt, spell it out!

Click here to download Australian style guidelines on using abbreviations

References

Snooks & Co., 2003, Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, repr. with corrections, John Wiley & Sons, Brisbane.


Updated 31 October 2018

Dr Ellen McRae,

Managing Editor,

Elite Editing.

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