An abbreviation is a shortened form of a word or a phrase. It can also take the form of an acronym or an initialism. The 2001 edition of Gale’s Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations Dictionary has 586,000 entries.
- When we ask for the meaning of abbreviations, acronyms or initials we use the following question: What does PDA stand for? – It stands for personal digital assistant;
- Abbreviations, etc. are usually written without full stops in British English (the UN; the BBC; Mr) but with periods in American English (U.N.; B.B.C.; Mr.);
- 1 Initialisms
- 2 Acronyms
- 3 Other forms of abbreviations
- 4 Common abbreviations and initials
- 5 Latin abbreviations
- 6 Miscellaneous
- 7 Footnote
- 8 See also
- 9 References
We usually say initial-letter abbreviations (initialisms) letter by letter. They are always written in capital letters: ADSL; BBC; CIA; DBMS; DJ; DNA; DVD; ECG; EU; FBI; HTML; ISO; MBA; NBA; NYSE; OK; PDA; SQL; SVGA; TFT; UK; UN; USA; etc.;
Other kinds of abbreviations, called acronyms, are pronounced as words: ANOVA; CAD (computer-aided design); dinks; EPO; FIFA; laser; NASA; NATO; nimbies; radar; UNESCO; WASPs; yuppies; etc.;
Upper or lower case
Except for initialisms (see above), abbreviations can be written in small letters (lower case) or as capitals (upper case). In the body of a text, acronyms especially, are sometimes written as names, i.e. the first letter is capital but not the rest: Aids; Nasa; Nasdaq; Nato; Unesco; etc.;
Use of "the"
We don’t usually use the in front of acronyms; UNESCO; NASA; (
the UNESCO); ( the NASA); but we do for intialisms: the BBC; the UN;
How we say it
In other cases, we write the abbreviations or initials but (nearly) always say the full words: Ave (avenue); B&B (bed and breakfast); c. (circa); C (Celsius or centigrade/carbon); Dept; Dr; E (east); etc. (et cetera); ft (foot, feet); HRH (His/Her Royal Highness); kg (kilos); lbs (pounds weight); Ltd; Mr; Ms (title for women); ms. (manuscript); N (north); Na (sodium); n/a (not applicable, not available); NE (Northeast); no. (number); NW (Northwest); NY (New York); pp. (pages); Prof (Professor); Rd (road); S (south); SE (Southeast); SFX (special effects); Sq.; Sr; St (street/saint); SUV (sport utility vehicle); SW (Southwest); UN (United Nations); Utd (united – used in names of football clubs); v.
Use of apostrophe
An apostrophe should not be used to show plurals. Apostrophes indicate possession. The plural of MP is MPs, not MP’s.
Other forms of abbreviations
We can mix small letters or capitals, abbreviations, initialisms, acronyms, numbers and even symbols to form rebuses: dB; CD-ROM; JPEG; kV; kWh; Mac-OS; Mb; MP3; P2P; W3C; WW2; 4WD; email@example.com; cul8r (texting: see you later);
Also known as clipped forms: ad/advert (advertisement); bra (brassière); bus (omnibus); Capt. (Captain); cello (violoncello); fax (facsimile); flu (influenza); fridge (refrigerator); gents (gentlemen’s toilets); gym (gymnasium); hippo (hippopotamus); phone (telephone); pop (popular music); pop. (population); pub (public house); rhino (rhinoceros); Xmas (Christmas); etc.;
Combining two words
blog (web log); brunch (breakfast & lunch); e-learning; e-mail; FORTRAN (formula translation); hi-fi (high fidelity); maglev (magnetic levitation); modem (modulator/demodulator); smog (smoke & fog); wi-fi (wireless fidelity), etc.;
Common abbreviations and initials
Note upper and lower case versions: ABS = anti-lock braking system; AD = Anno Domini; AGM = annual general meeting; AIDS/Aids; a.m. (AmE = A.M.); asap = as soon as possible; ATM = automatic teller machine (see note below); BA = Bachelor of Arts/British Airways; BC = Before Christ; BSc = Bachelor of Science; CEO = chief executive officer; cf. = compare; CPI = consumer price index; CPU = central processing unit; CV = curriculum vitae; DIY = do-it-yourself; DNA; e.g. = for example; ERDF; GPS = global positioning system; HR = human resources; hr = hour; i.e. = that is; IOU = I owe you; IPO = initial public offering; IQ = intelligence quotient; ISBN = International Standard Book Number; IT = information technology; LED = light-emitting diode; M&A = mergers and acquisitions; MBA = Master of Business Administration; MD = Doctor of Medicine; MEP = member of European parliament; MP = member of parliament; mph = miles per hour; PC = personal computer (see note below); PIN = personal identification number; plc = public limited company; PM = prime minister; p.m. (AmE = P.M.); PR = public relations; PS = post scriptum; R&D = research and development; RSVP = Respondez s’il vous plais; SMS = short messaging service; VAT = value added tax; WAN = wide area network; X-rays;
Abbreviations have become standard language for texting or text messaging (SMS): B4 = before; gr8 = great; XLNT = excellent; 2day = today; NE1 = anyone;
English has several Latin abbreviations, including the following:
- cf. = "compare" (L: confer)
- e.g. = "for example" (L: exempli gratia)
- et al. = "and other people" (L: et alia, et aliae, et alii)
- etc. = "and other things" (L: et cetera)
- i.e. = "in other words" (L: id est)
- N.B. = take special note of the following
- p.a. = each year (per annum)
- viz. = "namely" (L: videlicet)
Most style guides recommend against use of these abbreviations and leading scientific journals will reject papers containing them. The simple English equivalent is always preferred.
The only Latin abbreviations which are always acceptable are a.m. and p.m. (AmE = A.M. and P.M.)
As well as the above abbreviations, other typical ones used in note-taking include the following:
- approx. = approximately, about
- esp. = especially
- fwd = forward
- inc. = including
- km = kilometre/kilometres
- p. = page
- pp. pages
- w.e.f. = with effect from.
Of course, all aspects of a language evolve, and as can be seen from some of the examples above, many initialisms, especially, stand for more than one idea. Until 1978, when the initials PC came to stand for personal computer, they had stood for police constable, among other things. Since the mid-80s, however, it has also often been used to stand for political correctness/politically correct. Likewise, in everyday language ATM stands for automated teller machine, but in other contexts it stands for asynchronous transfer mode or air traffic management. Another case in point is the clipped form rep, which in the 17th century meant reputation. By the 18th century it had come to used, with a capital R, for republic, on the one hand, and for reprobate on the other. Then, with a neat irony, it came to stand for a member of the US House of Representatives and, with an even neater twist, for a member of the Republican Party. And who said language ain't fun?
- Crystal, David. The Story of English in 100 Words. Profile Books (2012)