Abbreviations are simply a short version of a word of phrase. For example, AD stands for Anno Domini, which is Latin for the year of the Lord.
Acronyms are a kind of abbreviation that is formed from the first letters (letters or syllables) of a word or phrase. For example, NASA stands in for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. What makes an acronym different from a regular abbreviation is that it is usually treated as a new word.
This page does not seek to explain every last abbreviation or acronym. Rather, it’s an attempt to describe some general attitudes to abbreviations in the context of academic writing.
Our guidelines follow the standards set by the MLA (Modern Language Association). If you are using a different set of guidelines or are working in a particular field, then you may have to apply slightly different rules.
Spell It Out
The general rule of thumb is that abbreviations and acronyms are to be avoided where possible:
Incorrect: The church was only five m. from the house.
Correct: The church was only five meters from the house.
By contrast, nobody would expect you to spell out a.m. (ante meridiem) or rpm’s (revolutions per minute).
In other words, it’s a judgment call. If an abbreviation isn’t really necessary, then spell it out. You can see this attitude in the fact that many academics prefer “and so forth” to “etc.” They mean the same thing, but in the body of the text (as opposed to the notes) it’s considered more elegant to write things out. That’s why they call it formal writing after all.
This is of course not a hard and fast rule. You’re not bound to save “e.g.” for the notes and use “for example” everywhere else. Still, it’s good to be aware of the general attitude.
Academics love their titles. It takes a while to get a PhD, so some professors insist on being called Dr. –, even though they wouldn’t be able to save anyone in an emergency.
However, when you’re quoting someone in an essay you can usually do without a title. You don’t have to write Dr. Philip Sandwich or Priscilla Blunt, MD. An exception might be if the title has become part of the name. For example, Thomas More is sometimes called Sir Thomas More, and the church father Augustine is also known as Saint Augustine or St. Augustine. Yet even in such cases the tendency these days is to do without the title.
If you use a title by itself, you should generally spell it out.
The Prime Minister (not PM) gave a speech.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
If you yourself regularly use an acronym, don’t assume that everybody else knows what you’re talking about. A lot depends on your audience. For example, Canadians know that BC stands for British Columbia, just as most New Zealanders readily understand OE to refer to Overseas Experience, a long holiday or working period overseas. Be ready to explain any acronyms if you think your audience may not understand them.
Here’s how you would spell out the acronym the first time you use it:
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently issued a report on tuberculosis. The WHO recommended …
This way you can provide clarity and still use acronyms in your writing.
If you take anything away from this page let’s hope it’s the fact that there is considerable leeway in the use of abbreviations. Where possible, spell them out. In addition, the more technical your writing (and the more specialized your audience) the more acceptable abbreviations become.
For further information about how to format abbreviations and acronyms, please visit the MLA page on abbreviations.