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Abbreviations in academic writing

9th June 2020 blog

Cheat sheet

No time to read? Here’s the short version:

  • Avoid contractions like won’t, can’t, they’re, it’s.
  • The first time you mention a phrase that can be abbreviated, spell it out in full and provide the abbreviation in parentheses. Use only the abbreviation thereafter.
  • Only abbreviate phrases that occur three or more times in your paper.
  • Avoid abbreviations in titles, headings, the abstract, and the reference section.
  • Use standard abbreviations for months, personal titles, countries and states, and some Latin phrases.

What’s an abbreviation?

Abbreviation is an umbrella term for a shortened version of a longer word or phrase. There are four types of abbreviation:

  • Contraction: The result of combining two words into one word with an apostrophe. For example, don’t is a contraction of do not.
  • Shortening: Shortened words in which a part of the word (usually the beginning or the end, but occasionally both!) has been dropped. They may appear as words in their own right, such as app for application, ad for advertisement, and flu for influenza. They may also appear as truncated words which are read out as if they were full words, such as for professor, Mgmt. for management, and Feb. for February. In such cases, the truncation is usually signalled with a full stop.
  • Acronym: A series of letters that represents a longer phrase. The end result is pronounced like a word. For example, NASA is the acronym for the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration and is pronounced nah-sa.
  • Initialism: Like an acronym, an initialism consists of several letters and represents a longer phrase. However, the end result cannot be pronounced as a word and instead has to be read letter by letter. FBI is the initialism for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and each letter is pronounced individually: ef-bee-eye.

Contractions are considered informal. They are best avoided in academic writing, where it’s necessary to maintain a formal tone. Shortenings are discussed in a separate article on standard abbreviations. This article covers the use of acronyms and initialisms, collectively referred to as ‘abbreviations’ here.

When to use abbreviations

Only use abbreviations for phrases that you use three or more times in a paper. For terms you use less frequently, it’s easier for a reader to read the full phrase rather than trying to remember an abbreviation she may have seen only once several pages earlier.

Sometimes, you may introduce an abbreviation at the beginning of your paper, but may not use it again until much later. In that case, consider adding a List of Abbreviations to help the reader follow along.

How to introduce an abbreviation

When you first use a phrase that can be abbreviated, spell it out in full and show the abbreviation in parentheses immediately afterwards.

Organizations often use a request for proposal (RFP) to solicit work.

The study was conducted at the University of Lagos (UNILAG). Many UNILAG students were surveyed for this research.

If the long-form phrase is already in parentheses the first time it occurs, use square brackets to set the abbreviation apart.

The number of imprisoned journalists globally has risen in the past 10 years (Society of Professional Journalists [SPJ], 2015).

Remember, after you’ve introduced the abbreviation, use only the acronym throughout the rest of your paper. You don’t need to spell out the full phrase again. That’s the beauty of abbreviations!

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently conducted a joint study with the South African Medical Association (SAMA) on water hygiene in South Africa. WHO provided SAMA with a five-year grant to collect data from 25 hospitals.

How to pluralize abbreviations

To make an acronym or initialism plural, all you need to do is add a lowercase s to the end. It’s that simple. No apostrophes necessary!

Correct:           The CEOs were profiled in Forbes magazine.

Incorrect:         The CEO’s were profiled in Forbes magazine.

Incorrect:         The CEOS were profiled in Forbes magazine.

Articles before abbreviations

When to use a or an before an abbreviation

Use the article that matches the way the abbreviation is pronounced. If the first sound is a vowel sound, use an. If the abbreviation starts with a consonant sound, use a.

 

an NBC reporter                           an MRI machine

a NATO representative             a MOMA exhibit

Still not sure which article to use? Deciding whether to use a or an can be tricky. In a pinch, try asking a colleague or searching for the entire phrase online to see how other writers in your industry have done it.

When to use the before an abbreviation

This rule depends on whether the abbreviation is an acronym or an initialism. Add the if the abbreviation is an initialism—not an acronym—for a phrase or name that normally includes the word the (but don’t add the letter T in the abbreviation).

Correct:           the International Criminal Court → the ICC

Correct:           the Women’s National Basketball Association → the WNBA

Incorrect:         the National Aeronautics and Space Administration → the NASA

When to avoid abbreviations

Avoid using abbreviations in the following sections of an academic paper:

  • Title
  • Abstract
  • Section headings
  • Reference section

Title

Your title should be accessible to all readers and easy to understand. Avoid ambiguity by spelling out phrases in full.

Correct:           The Environmental Protection Agency’s Stance on Carbon Capture

Incorrect:         The EPA’s Stance on Carbon Capture

Abstract

Abstracts are short. It’s unlikely that you’ll use the same term three or more times in an abstract, so abbreviations are not necessary here. However, if you do introduce an abbreviation in the abstract, remember to do it in the body of your paper as well.

Section headings

Some readers will skim your paper to identify those sections that are most useful to them. Help them navigate the contents more easily by using full phrases in the section headings instead of relying on abbreviations.

Correct:           Undergraduate Enrolment in the Society of Women Engineers in 2018

Incorrect:         Undergraduate Enrolment in the SWE in 2018

Reference section

You can use abbreviations in in-text citations. In the Reference section (sometimes labelled Works Cited), however, all abbreviations should be written in full.

Correct:           American Psychological Association. (2010). Gen Y’s evolving gender rolesRetrieved from http://www.apa.org/millennials/gender.

Incorrect:         American Psychological Association (APA). (2010). Gen Y’s evolving gender roles. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/millennials/gender.

Incorrect:         APA. (2010). Gen Y’s evolving gender roles. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/millennials/gender.

Abbreviations in other languages

Sometimes, an abbreviation or acronym might be in a foreign language. In this case, introduce both the full phrase or name of the organization in its original language and the English translation. The abbreviation should reflect the correct word order in the original language.

Italy’s Five Star Movement, known as Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), is a populist, anti-establishment reform party.

You can also introduce the abbreviation by putting the original name in parentheses and the abbreviation in brackets within the parentheses.

In parliamentary elections held in March 2018, the Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle [M5S]) emerged as the largest party in Italy with 32% of the vote.

When to add a list of abbreviations

If you use 10 or more abbreviations in your thesis or dissertation, consider adding a formal List of Abbreviations after the Table of Contents. It will help your reader follow along more easily. Even if you do include a List of Abbreviations, make sure to introduce each abbreviated phrase in full the first time that you use it within your text, with the corresponding abbreviation in parentheses.

A List of Abbreviations should contain all the abbreviations your paper uses in alphabetical order. Abbreviations starting with a number should come before the letter ‘A’. Here’s a shortened example from a paper on medicine:

Abbreviation Explanation
BNA British Nursing Association
BP blood pressure
DSM-5 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition
PE pulmonary embolism

As shown in the example, abbreviations can represent not only names that would be capitalized in their full form, but also common terms that are not normally capitalized, such as blood pressure (BP). If such terms recur often in the running text, it makes sense to abbreviate them, too.

Some acronyms and initialisms are so common that they require no formal introduction; there is no need to define these in either the running text or the List of Abbreviations. Examples include USSR, AIDS, HTML, and GMT.

Frequent errors

Using abbreviations correctly in English is quite tricky, and many writers struggle with this aspect of their academic writing. Here’s a very common mistake: following an abbreviation with a word that is already in the abbreviation. For example, if you say ATM machine, the word machine is redundant because the last letter of the acronym already stands for machine.

By way of recap (that’s a shortening, by the way!), you can have a look at some of the most frequent abbreviation mistakes that our editors have to correct.

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