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An abbreviation (from Latin brevis, meaning "short") is a shortened form of a word or phrase. Usually, but not always, it consists of a letter or group of letters taken from the word or phrase. For example, the word abbreviation can itself be represented by the abbreviation abbr. or abbrev.

In strict analysis, abbreviations should not be confused with contractions or acronyms (including initialisms), with which they share some semantic and phonetic functions, though all three are connoted by the term "abbreviation" in loose parlance.[1]:p167 However, normally acronyms are regarded as a subgroup of abbreviations (e.g. by the Council of Science Editors).



Abbreviation has been used as long as phonetic script existed, in some senses actually being more common in early literacy, where spelling out a whole word was often avoided, initial letters commonly being used to represent words in specific application. By classical Greece and Rome, the reduction of words to single letters was still normal, but no longer the default.

An increase in literacy has, historically, sometimes spawned a trend toward abbreviation. The standardization of English in the 15th through 17th centuries included such a growth in the use of abbreviation.[2] At first, abbreviations were sometimes represented with various suspension signs, not only periods. For example, specific phoneme sets like "er" were dropped from words and replaced with ɔ, like "mastɔ" instead of "master" or exacɔbate instead of "exacerbate". While this seems trivial, it was symptomatic of an attempt by people manually reproducing academic texts to reduce their copy time. An example from the Oxford University Register, 1503:

Mastɔ subwardenɔ y ɔmēde me to you. And wherɔ y wrot to you the last wyke that y trouyde itt good to differrɔ thelectionɔ ovɔ to quīdenaɔ tinitatis y have be thougħt me synɔ that itt woll be thenɔ a bowte mydsomɔ.

In the 1830s in the United States, starting with Boston, abbreviation became a fad. For example, during the growth of philological linguistic theory in academic Britain, abbreviating became very trendy. The use of abbreviation for the names of "Father of modern etymology" J. R. R. Tolkien and his friend C. S. Lewis, and other members of the Oxford literary group known as the Inklings, are sometimes cited as symptomatic of this. Likewise, a century earlier in Boston, a fad of abbreviation started that swept the United States, with the globally popular term OK generally credited as a remnant of its influence.[3][4]

After World War II, the British greatly reduced their use of the full stop and other punctuation points after abbreviations in at least semi-formal writing, while the Americans more readily kept such use until more recently, and still maintain it more than Britons. The classic example, considered by their American counterparts quite curious, was the maintenance of the internal comma in a British organization of secret agents called the "Special Operations, Executive" — "S.O.,E" — which is not found in histories written after about 1960.

But before that, many Britons were more scrupulous at maintaining the French form. In French, the period only follows an abbreviation if the last letter in the abbreviation is not the last letter of its antecedent: "M." is the abbreviation for "monsieur" while "Mme" is that for "madame". Like many other cross-channel linguistic acquisitions, many Britons readily took this up and followed this rule themselves, while the Americans took a simpler rule and applied it rigorously.

Over the years, however, the lack of convention in some style guides has made it difficult to determine which two-word abbreviations should be abbreviated with periods and which should not. The U.S. media tend to use periods in two-word abbreviations like United States (U.S.), but not personal computer (PC) or television (TV). Many British publications have gradually done away with the use of periods in abbreviations completely.

Minimization of punctuation in typewritten matter became economically desirable in the 1960s and 1970s for the many users of carbon-film ribbons, since a period or comma consumed the same length of non-reusable expensive ribbon as did a capital letter.

The last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century have also brought with them new abbreviations phenomena. With the advent of text messaging on cellular phones has come an increase in the use of abbreviations in communications. This has caused alarm amongst educators and other adults. However, in chapter 3 his book Txting: The Gr8 Db8, linguist David Crystal demonstrates how many of the “alarming” abbreviating methods are, in fact, the same abbreviating methods that have been employed (and accepted) for centuries. He discusses initialisms, “the reduction of words to their initial letters” (p. 41). For example, the word “girlfriend” might be reduced to “GF,” and the phrase “just kidding” might be reduced to “JK.” Crystal points out that this is no different than saying “pm” instead of “post meridiem” (“after midday”) when telling time, or “AWOL” instead of “absent without leave,” or even “laser” instead of “light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation.” As Crystal points out, some of these initialisms have been so accepted by society that many people can no longer even recall what the abbreviations originally stood for. Another abbreviating method he discusses is omitted letters. (For example, writing “msg” in place of “message,” or “txtin” instead of “texting.” Crystal points out that, although the omission of vowels is causing alarm in some non-texters, the omission of vowels in other words is common and considered perfectly acceptable. (For example, “Mrs.” from the word “Mistress,” and the names of ranks (Sgt, Lt.)) He also discusses nonstandard spellings that texters use, such as “cos” for because, “wot” for “what,” and “ya” for “you.” He demonstrates that these alternate spellings have been in existence from 1828, 1829, and 1941, respectively, long before texting was invented. Therefore, Crystal makes a strong argument that texting is not “ruining” the English language, as some people fear, but merely continuing the patterns of evolution of the language that have been occurring for centuries. Other “new” aspects of texting that he proves are not so new at all include pictograms and logograms, and shortenings.[5]

Style conventions in English

In modern English there are several conventions for abbreviations and the choice may be confusing. The only rule universally accepted is that one should be consistent, and to make this easier, publishers express their preferences in a style guide. Questions which arise include those in the following subsections.

Lowercase letters

If the original word was capitalized, then the first letter of its abbreviation should retain the capital, for example Lev. for Leviticus. When abbreviating words spelled with lower case letters, there is no need for capitalization.

Periods (full stops) and spaces

A period (full stop) is sometimes written after an abbreviated word, but there are exceptions and a general lack of consensus about when this should happen. There is some confusion over the strict distinction between an abbreviation (a word shortened by omission of its end part) — requiring a full point (or full stop or period) — and a contraction (a word or compound shortened by omission of a middle part) — which does not need a full point or period. American English usage is less strict about this distinction and thus more likely to conclude a contraction , e.g., Jr. for "Junior" with a period.

There is never a period (full stop) between letters of the same word. For example, "kilometer" is abbreviated as km and not as k.m.. However, "miles per hour" can be abbreviated by the acronym m.p.h. or, increasingly common, mph.

In British English, according to Hart's Rules, the general rule is that abbreviations terminate with a full point (period), whereas contractions do not.[1]:p167

Example Category Short form Source
Doctor Contraction Dr D–r
Professor Abbreviation Prof. Prof...
The Reverend Contraction (or Abbreviation) Revd (or Rev.) Rev–d
The Right Honourable Contraction and Abbreviation Rt Hon. R–t Hon...

In American English, the period is usually added if the abbreviation might otherwise be interpreted as a word, but some American writers do not use a period here. Sometimes, periods are used for certain initialisms but not others; a notable instance in American English is to write United States, European Union, and United Nations as U.S., EU, and UN respectively.

A third standard removes the full stops from all abbreviations (both "Saint" and "Street" become "St"). The U.S. Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices advises that periods should not be used with abbreviations on road signs, except for cardinal directions as part of a destination name. (For example, "Northwest Blvd", "W. Jefferson", and "PED XING" all follow this recommendation.)

Acronyms that were originally capitalized (with or without periods) but have since entered the vocabulary as generic words are no longer abbreviated with capital letters nor with any periods. Examples are sonar, radar, lidar, laser, snafu, and scuba.

Spaces are generally not used between single letter abbreviations of words in the same phrase, so one almost never encounters "U. S.".

When an abbreviation appears at the end of a sentence, use only one period: The capital of the United States is Washington, D.C.

Plural forms

To form the plural of an abbreviation, a number, or a capital letter used as a noun, simply add a lowercase s to the end.

  • A group of MPs
  • The roaring '20s
  • Mind your Ps and Qs

When an abbreviation contains more than one full point, put the s after the final one.[1]:p175

  • Ph.D.s
  • M.Phil.s
  • the d.t.s

However, subject to any house style or consistency requirement, the same plurals may be rendered less formally as:

  • PhDs
  • MPhils
  • the DTs (delirium tremens). (This is the recommended form in the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors.)

An apostrophe may be used in rare cases where clarity calls for it, for example when letters or symbols are referred to as objects.[1]:p.66

  • The x's of the equation
  • Dot the i's and cross the t's

However, the apostrophe can be dispensed with if the items are set in italics or quotes:

  • The xs of the equation
  • Dot the 'i's and cross the 't's

In Latin, and continuing to the derivative forms in European languages as well as English, single-letter abbreviations had the plural being a doubling of the letter for note-taking. Most of these deal with writing and publishing. A few longer abbreviations use this as well.

Singular abbreviation Singular Word Plural abbreviation Plural Word Discipline
d. didot dd. didots typography
f. following line or page ff. following lines or pages notes
h. hand hh. hands horse height
l. line ll. lines notes
MS manuscript MSS manuscripts notes
op. opus opp. opera notes
p. page pp. pages notes
P. pope PP. popes
s. (or §) section ss. (or §§) sections notes
v. volume vv. volumes notes

Conventions followed by publications and newspapers

United States

Publications based in the U.S. tend to follow the style guides of the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press. The U.S. Government follows a style guide published by the U.S. Government Printing Office.

However, there is some inconsistency in abbreviation styles, as they are not rigorously defined by style guides. Some two-word abbreviations, like "United Nations", are abbreviated with uppercase letters and periods, and others, like "personal computer" (PC) and "compact disc" (CD), are not; rather, they are typically abbreviated without periods and in uppercase letters. A third variation is to use lowercase letters with periods; this is used by Time Magazine in abbreviating "public relations" (p.r.). Moreover, even three-word abbreviations (most U.S. publications use uppercase abbreviations without periods) are sometimes not consistently abbreviated, even within the same article.

The New York Times is unique in having a consistent style by always abbreviating with periods: P.C., I.B.M., P.R. This is in contrast with the trend of British publications to omit periods for convenience.

United Kingdom

Many British publications follow some of these guidelines in abbreviation:

  • For the sake of convenience, many British publications, including the BBC and The Guardian, have completely done away with the use of full stops or periods in all abbreviations. These include:
    • Social titles, like Ms or Mr (though these would usually not have had full stops — see above) Capt, Prof, etc.;
    • Two-letter abbreviations for countries ("US", not "U.S.");
    • Abbreviations beyond three letters (full caps for all except initialisms);
    • Words seldom abbreviated with lower case letters ("PR", instead of "p.r.", or "pr")
    • Names ("FW de Klerk", "GB Whiteley", "Park JS"). A notable exception is The Economist which writes "Mr F. W. de Klerk".
    • Scientific units (see Measurement below).
  • Acronyms are often referred to with only the first letter of the abbreviation capitalised. For instance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation can be abbreviated as "Nato" or "NATO", and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome as "Sars" or "SARS" (compare with "laser" which has made the full transition to an English word and is rarely capitalised at all).
  • Initialisms are always written in capitals; for example the "British Broadcasting Corporation" is abbreviated to "BBC", never "Bbc". An initialism is similar to acronym but is not pronounced as a word.
  • When abbreviating scientific units, no space is added between the number and unit (100mph, 100m, 10cm, 10°C). (This is contrary to the SI standard, see below.)

Miscellaneous and general rules

  • A doubled letter also appears in abbreviations of some Welsh names, as in Welsh the double "l" is a separate sound: "Ll. George" for (British prime minister) David Lloyd George.
  • Some titles, such as "Reverend" and "Honourable", are spelt out when preceded by "the", rather than as "Rev." or "Hon." respectively. This is true for most British publications, and some in the United States.
  • A repeatedly-used abbreviation should be spelt out for identification on its first occurrence in a written or spoken passage. Abbreviations likely to be unfamiliar to many readers should be avoided.


The International System of Units (SI) defines a set of base units, from which other "derived" units may be obtained. The abbreviations, or more accurately "symbols" (using Roman letters, Greek letters in the case of ohm and micro and other characters in the case of degrees celsius) for these units are also clearly defined together with a set of prefixes for which there are also abbreviations or symbols. There should never be a period after or inside a unit; both '10 k.m.' and '10 k.m' are wrong — the only correct form is '10 km' (only followed with a period when at the end of a sentence).

A period "within" a compound unit denotes multiplication of the base units on each side of it. Ideally, this period should be raised to the centre of the line, but often it is not. For instance, '5 ms' means 5 millisecond(s), whereas '5 m.s' means 5 metre·second(s). The "m.s" here is a compound unit formed from the product of two fundamental SI units — metre and second. However, the middle dot symbol (·, unicode U+00B7, HTML ·) is the preferred way to represent compound units when available, e.g. "5 m·s".

There should always be a (non-breaking) space between the number and the unit — '25 km' is correct, and '25km' is incorrect. In Section 5.3.3. of The International System of Units (SI), the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) states "The numerical value always precedes the unit, and a space is always used to separate the unit from the number. … The only exceptions to this rule are for the unit symbols for degree, minute, and second for plane angle."[6]

The case of letters (uppercase or lowercase) has meaning in the SI system, and case should never be changed in a misguided attempt to follow an abbreviation style. For example, "10 S" denotes 10 siemens (a unit of conductance), while "10 s" denotes 10 seconds. Any unit named after a person is denoted by a symbol with an upper case first letter (S, Pa, A, V, N, Wb, W), but spelt out in full in lower case, (siemens, pascal, ampere, volt, newton, weber and watt). By contrast g, l, m, s, cd, ha represent gram, litre, metre, second, candela and hectare respectively. The one slight exception to this rule is that the symbol for litre is allowed to be L to help avoid confusion with an upper case i or a one in some typefaces — compare l, I, and 1.

Likewise, the abbreviations of the prefixes denoting powers of ten are case-sensitive: m (milli) represents a thousandth, but M (mega) represents a million, so by inadvertent changes of case one may introduce (in this example) an error of a factor of 1 000 000 000. When a unit is written in full, the whole unit is written in lowercase, including the prefix: millivolt for mV, nanometre for nm, gigacandela for Gcd.

The above rules, if followed, ensure that the SI system is always unambiguous, so for instance mK denotes millikelvin, MK denotes megakelvin, K.m denotes kelvin.metre, and km denotes kilometre. Forms such as k.m and Km are ill-formed and technically meaningless in the SI system, although the intended meaning might be inferred from the context.

Syllabic abbreviation

A syllabic abbreviation is an abbreviation formed from (usually) initial syllables of several words, such as Interpol = International + police. It is basically a variant of the acronym.

Syllabic abbreviations are usually written using lower case, sometimes starting with a capital letter, and are always pronounced as words rather than letter by letter.

Syllabic abbreviations should be distinguished from portmanteaus.


Different languages

Syllabic abbreviations are not widely used in English or French. The United States Navy, however, often uses syllabic abbreviations, as described below.

On the other hand, they prevailed in Germany under the Nazis and in the Soviet Union for naming the plethora of new bureaucratic organizations. For example, Gestapo stands for Geheime Staats-Polizei, or "secret state police". Similarly, Comintern stands for the Communist International. This has caused syllabic abbreviations to have negative connotation, notwithstanding that such abbreviations were used in Germany even before the Nazis came to power, e.g., Schupo for Schutzpolizei.

Syllabic abbreviations were also typical for the German language used in the German Democratic Republic, e.g. Stasi for Staatssicherheit ("state security", the secret police) or Vopo for Volkspolizist ("people's policeman").

East Asian languages whose writing uses Chinese-originated ideograms instead of an alphabet form abbreviations similarly by using key characters from a term or phrase. For example, in Japanese the term for the United Nations, kokusai rengō (国際連合) is often abbreviated to kokuren (国連). (Such abbreviations are called ryakugo (略語) in Japanese). The syllabic abbreviation is frequently used for universities: for instance, Běidà (北大) for Běijīng Dàxué (北京大学, Peking University) and Tōdai (東大) for Tōkyō daigaku (東京大学, University of Tokyo).


Syllabic abbreviations are preferred by the US Navy as it increases readability amidst the large number of initialisms that would otherwise have to fit into the same acronyms. Hence DESRON 6 is used (in the full capital form) to mean "Destroyer Squadron 6," while COMNAVFORLANT would be "Commander, Naval Force (in the) Atlantic."

See also


  1. ^ a b c d New Hart's Rules: The handbook of style for writers and editors. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-861041-6. 
  2. ^ Spelling Society : Shortcuts 1483-1660
  3. ^ "The Choctaw Expression 'Okeh' and the Americanism 'Okay'". Jim Fay. 2007-09-13. Retrieved 2008-05-12. 
  4. ^ "What does "OK" stand for?". The Straight Dope. Retrieved 2008-05-12. 
  5. ^ Crystal, David. Txting: The Gr8 Db8. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2008.
  6. ^ "The International System of Units (SI)" (pdf). International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). Retrieved 2008-04-18. 

External links

  • — a database of acronyms and abbreviations
  • Acronym Finder — a database of acronyms and abbreviations (over 750,000 entries)
  • All Acronyms — a database of acronyms, initialisms and abbreviations (over 750,000 entries)
  • - a language tool to make new meaningful acronyms and abbreviations

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Simple English

An abbreviation is a shorter way to write a word or phrase. People use abbreviations for words that they write a lot. The English language occasionally uses the apostrophe mark ' to show that a word is written in a shorter way, but some abbreviations do not use this mark. More often, they use periods, especially the ones that come from the Latin language. Common Latin abbreviations include i.e. [id est] that is, e.g. [exempli gratia] for example, and et al. [et alia] and others.

Some new abbreviations have been created by scientists, by workers in companies and governments, and by people using the Internet.

People often think words are abbreviations when in fact they are acronyms.

Here are examples of common acronyms: The word "radar" is an acronym for "Radio Detection and Ranging". The name of the large computer company IBM comes from the words "International Business Machines". The name of the part of the United States government that sends rockets into outer space is NASA, from the words "National Aeronautics and Space Administration". When people using the Internet think that something is very funny, they sometimes write "LOL" to mean "Laughing Out Loud". People sometimes write "ASAP" for "As Soon As Possible".

Other Websites

  • Acronym Finder - largest acronym site with many ways to search for acronyms and abbreviations in many languages. Over 10 year history.
  • All Acronyms - a website with a large number of abbreviations and acronyms

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