Abbreviations are common ways to shorten long words, phrases, and proper nouns. The key is to differentiate between formal and informal writing, and to understand when it's appropriate to use abbreviations for each.
For more formal writing, always write out the initial word, phrase, or proper noun and show the abbreviation in parentheses. For example:
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Some abbreviations have become words that are part of the modern day vernacular like "scuba" which stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus and "laser" which stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. (Are either of those news to you?)
Difference between acronyms and initialisms
An acronym is a series of initial letters for a word or phrase. Acronyms are pronounced as a single word, like NASA, IKEA, or radar (Radio Detection and Ranging).
Initialisms are also a series of initial letters, but the letters are pronounced individually instead of as a single word. For example, the NFL (National Football League) is pronounced en-eff-ell.
Understanding the difference between these two abbreviations will help you decide what indefinite article to use. If you’re referring to a player in the NFL, you would write, "an NFL player" because the beginning sound of the initialism is a vowel.
Courtesy titles and academic degrees
Another common abbreviation to use is for courtesy titles like "Mr." "Ms." and "Dr." in the US (US is an initialism) or "Mr" "Ms" and "Dr" in the UK (another initialism). You can also abbreviate common academic degrees as:
- B.S. (Bachelor of Science)
- B.A. (Bachelor of Arts)
- M.A. (Master of Arts)
- M.B.A. (Master of Business Administration)
- Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)
Depending on the style guide you follow, periods after academic degree abbreviations are optional. If you don’t have a style guide, choose one way and stick with it in all your writing.
Common Latin abbreviations in use today
The most common Latin abbreviations writers use today are:
- e.g.: This stands for exempli gratia which means "for example." Use it when providing examples of something, but not an all-inclusive list.
- i.e.: This stands for id est meaning "that is." Use it when you want to give specific information about something. For example (or e.g.), "my favorite winter holiday (i.e., Christmas)".
- etc.: This stands for et cetera and means "and so forth." Use this when you’re writing a partially complete list of things. For example, "Sentences are made of word types like nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc."
Time and date abbreviations
Time and dates are often abbreviated, regardless of which side of the pond you live on. Common abbreviations are:
- Jan., Feb., Mar., Apr., Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov., Dec.
- Mon., Tues., Wed., Thurs., Fri., Sat., Sun.
- a.m. (ante meridiem which means "before noon") and p.m. (post meridiem which means "after noon")
Even these date abbreviations aren’t standardized. Some style guides use "Thu." For Thursday while others favor "Thurs." Again, if your style guide doesn’t specify, pick one way and stick to it.
What common abbreviations do you use often in your writing? Let us know in the comments!