Not all abbreviations are acronyms: shortenings, contractions, initialisms and acronyms

In scientific texts, especially those for master’s degrees and PhDs, there’s a widely spread wrong habit to introduce abbreviations under the title ‘Acronyms’. Enough!

Abbreviations are short versions of words or phrases. However, briefness mustn’t be at the expense of clarity. They make language simpler and save space and also ease international communication. Therefore, they should be written out next to their first appearance in a text or included in an abbreviations list to ensure comprehension.

Don't combine them randomly [image: Maria Teresa Ambrosi]

Don’t combine them randomly [image: Maria Teresa Ambrosi]

There are different sorts of abbreviations: shortenings, contractions, initialisms and acronyms.

Shortenings drop the beginning or the end of the original word or phrase. They usually need a full stop to replace the missing letters at the end [Dec. (December), cont. (continued)], except when they’ve become a new word themselves [cello (violoncello), rhino (rhninoceros)]. The full stop should not be used at the end of a sentence or before ellipses as that punctuation already has it.

Contractions omit some letters from the middle and don’t need a full stop as the letters on both ends are still there [Dr (doctor), Mr (mister)], but they do need an apostrophe to replace the omitted letters when two words are involved [you’ll (you will), didn’t (did not)].

Initialisms are built with the initial letters of a phrase and are read as separate letters [BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)]. They’re generally written in capital letters and without full stops. The plural of an initialism is formed by just adding an s [NGOs (non-governmental organizations), LODs (limits of detection)], never an apostrophe—unless you intend to use a possessive.

Acronyms—here they come—are built with the initial letters of a phrase, just like initialisms, but are pronounced as words [ASAP (as soon as possible), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)], so much so that some have become common words themselves [radar (radio detection and ranging), laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation)]. Capitalization depends on how common they’ve become, but plural is formed as with initialisms—and any other word in the end.

So, my dear scientists, check that you’ve actually got only acronyms on that section if that’s the title you’ll be printing on long-lasting documents for people to read.

Oxford University Press. ‘Abbreviations‘ in Oxford Dictionaries [online]. 2014. [viewed July 2014].

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