Dealing with abbreviations, acronyms, and initialismsAugust 19, 2013
Based on a writing tip I recently sent to my work colleagues.
NOTE: These are the rules based on our style guide and its referenced authorities. Your style guide may differ.
In accordance with [our style guide]:
- Always write out in full any abbreviation/acronym/initialism (see Notes for the differences) the first time you use it in the main body of the document, then put the abbreviation in parentheses; e.g. Materials Offloading Facility (MOF). Exception: Do not write out in full common abbreviated measurement units (e.g. km).
- After that first instance, you can use the abbreviation etc. (e.g. MOF) throughout the rest of the document, except in the References list (see Other Guidance below).
- Don’t use punctuation between the letters of an acronym or initialism (e.g. CSIRO, not C.S.I.R.O.).
- If the term is only used once or twice in the document, you probably don’t need to abbreviate it, unless you know your readers are more familiar with the abbreviation (e.g. GPS, PPE), in which case write it in full the first time with its abbreviation even if it’s only used once in the document.
- If a term is used more than about five times in the document AND there’s an abbreviation for it, consider replacing the term with the abbreviation. But first consider your audience (e.g. some regulatory documents may want certain terms written in full every time).
- If the term and abbreviation are first used inside parentheses (such as in a citation), then use square brackets for the abbreviation within the parentheses; e.g. ‘blah blah (Department of Environment and Conservation [DEC] 2007) blah blah’.
- In the References list, write out the abbreviation etc. in full where it’s the authoring body or the publisher (e.g. ‘Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. 2012.’ not ‘SEWPaC. 2012.’)
- Make sure all abbreviations etc. you use in the document are listed and defined in the Terms list. You still have to write each term in full the first time it’s used in the main body of the document.
- If the term is capitalised (capped) because it’s the proper name of something (e.g. Materials Offloading Facility), then keep those capitals in the full version, but if the term is normally not capped (e.g. personal protective equipment), then only use caps in the abbreviation (e.g. PPE).
- Follow the guidance for SI units for the abbreviation and capitalisation of units of measure; e.g. km/h not km/hr (see http://www1.bipm.org/utils/en/pdf/si-brochure.pdf [especially the tables in Sections 2.1.2, 2.2.1, 2.2.2, and 4.1 of that document]).
- Initialisms are made from the first letter (or letters) of a string of words, but can’t be pronounced as words themselves. Examples include FBI, CIA, FYI (for your information), and PR (public relations).
- Acronyms are made from the first letter (or letters) of a string of words but are pronounced as if they were words themselves. Examples include NASA, NIMBY (not in my backyard), and hazmat (hazardous materials).
- Abbreviations are any shortened form of a word.