The correct usage of shortened words and symbols can be confusing for some writers. This does not need to be the case: there are a few basic rules to understand that can ensure these are used correctly and consistently.
Shortened words comprise two types: abbreviations and contractions. Not understanding the difference between these two types of shortened words can lead to common errors. An abbreviation contains the first letter of a word and one or more other letters, but not the last letter of the word. An abbreviation sometimes has a full stop immediately after it. For example, the abbreviated form for ‘Victoria’ can be ‘Vic’ or ‘Vic.’ depending on the style followed. If an abbreviation is used at the end of a sentence that ends with a full stop (not a question mark or exclamation mark), and there is no punctuation between the abbreviation and the end of the sentence, then only one full stop should be used to avoid having two full stops in a row. A contraction consists of the first letter of a word, the last letter and sometimes letters in between. A contraction does not use a full stop. For example, the contracted form for ‘Queensland’ is ‘Qld’. The capitalisation of a shortened word remains the same as that of the full version of the word. One common error that people make is including a full stop after a contraction, for example, ‘Mr.’ or ‘Dr.’. The correct way to present these contractions is ‘Mr’ and ‘Dr’. (However, note that a full stop is used in such cases in US English.) It is important to remember that if the shortened word contains the last letter of the full version of the word, it is a contraction and must not use a full stop.
Did you know the shortened form for ‘number’, ‘no.’, is technically a contraction, not an abbreviation? This is because it is actually a contraction of the Italian word ‘numero’. However, the full stop is added to the end of the contraction to avoid confusion with the word ‘no’. However, the plural form, ‘nos’, does not use a full stop.
Symbols are representations of words, concepts and units of measurement. Like contractions, symbols do not use a full stop. The plural form of a symbol remains the same as the singular form; it does not require a plural ‘s’, for example, ‘6 km’, not ‘6 kms’. Note, symbols are usually lower case but there are a few exceptions. The most common are ‘L’ for litre (however, the lowercase ‘l’ is acceptable), ‘M’ for mega and ‘G’ for giga. A space should always be used between a number and its symbol. The exceptions for this rule are currency, the per cent symbol and the symbols used for plane angular measure. It is important that a number is never separated from its symbol by breaking it over two lines. If the symbol is on the next line, the number must be moved there as well.
You should now understand how to use abbreviations, contractions and common symbols. Remember: never use a full stop for a contraction, symbols cannot be made plural by adding an ‘s’, and never separate a symbol from its number by breaking it over a line. Following these rules will ensure you avoid common errors and help you improve the overall quality of your document.
Updated: 27 May 2020
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What are shortened forms?
A: In academic writing, we typically use three categories of shortened forms. These are shortened words, shortened phrases and symbols. Shortened words are abbreviations and contractions. Shortened phrases can be acronyms or initialisms. Symbols are used to represent words, concepts and units of measurement. Authors sometimes get confused about these but there are just a few basic rules to understand, and then, you are ready to go!
Q: What are abbreviations?
A: An abbreviation has the first letter of a word and one or more other letters, but not the last letter. It sometimes ends with a full stop: for example, in some styles, ‘Victoria’ becomes ‘Vic.’ with a full stop. What do you do if ‘Vic.’ ends the sentence? Then, use only one full stop to avoid having two full stops in a row.
Q: What are contractions?
A: We form a contraction using the first letter of a word, the last letter and sometimes one or more of the other letters, but we don’t use a full stop with it. For example, ‘Queensland’ becomes ‘Qld’ without a full stop. Did you know that the correct contractions for ‘Mister’ and ‘Doctor’ in British/Australian English are ‘Mr’ and ‘Dr’? Remember, this rule does not apply to American English, which usually includes a full stop after contractions.
Q: What are acronyms and initialisms?
A: Both are formed using the first letters of a series of words, but acronyms can be pronounced as words (e.g. ‘The NASA mission), and initialisms cannot (e.g. ‘A URL was provided’), which will affect your use of articles. Generally, we do not use full stops for acronyms/initialisms (e.g. GDP, UNESCO, UK) except when there’s a risk it will be read as a word. For example, ‘U.S. ANNOUNCES VICTORY’ instead of ‘US ANNOUNCES VICTORY’.
Q: What are the rules for symbols?
A: Symbols do not use a full stop. Their plural form remains the same as the singular form: for example, ‘6 km’, not ‘6 kms’. Symbols are usually lower case, but there are a few exceptions. Always add a space between a number and its symbol, other than for the symbols for currency, per cent and the plane angular measure. Don’t separate a number from its symbol by breaking it over two lines.