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19.3 Abbreviating Words and Using Acronyms

Learning Objectives

  1. Be familiar with common abbreviations.
  2. Understand when to use and not to use abbreviations.
  3. Recognize common symbols when you see them and learn to use them.

AbbreviationsA shortened form of a word that is used for convenience, to manage space, or both. are shortened forms of words that are used for convenience or to manage space. In its purest form, an abbreviation includes initial letters of a word followed by a period, such as “in.” for “inches.” However, many abbreviations skip over letters, such as “yd.” for “yard,” and are still written with a period. Some multiword terms are abbreviated by using the first letter of each word and are called acronymsA multiword term that is abbreviated by using the first letter of each word. rather than abbreviations. An example of an acronym is “FBI” for “Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Some abbreviations or acronyms require a period (etc.), but quite a few never take periods (IBM or FBI). You simply have to learn these differences through the experience of seeing specific examples in print.

You need to know two main things about abbreviations: when to use them and how to write them appropriately. The following sections will clarify these two points.

Common Abbreviations for Titles with Names

Titles that are used with names are often abbreviated—in fact, they are almost always abbreviated. You should spell out religious, academic, and government titles in academic writing, but otherwise, use the standard abbreviations.

Common Abbreviations

Use these standard abbreviations before names: Mrs. Jones, Mr. Hernandez, Ms. Fieldston, Sen. Brown, Rev. Arles, Gen. Bradford, Dr. Borray, Rep. Anderson, Prof. Cruz, St. Francis, Sgt. Appleby

Use these standard abbreviations after names: Alex Jones, DDS; Arnold Wilson, PhD; George A. Ortiz, Jr.; George A. Ortiz, Sr.; Hannah Borray, MD; Phil Horace, BA; Millie Mance, MA; Gloria Wills, MBA; Fred Flores, CPA

Do not use an abbreviation both before and after a name: Write Dr. Joseph Pfeiffer or Joseph Pfeiffer, MD, but do not write Dr. Joseph Pfieffer, MD.

Spell out these titles in academic writing: Professor Robert Jones, Reverend Martin Luther King, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Senator John Smith

Do not use these title abbreviations if not attached to a name: Do not use any of these abbreviations on their own without a name. Instead spell the titles out, as in “I’m going to see the doctor after my meeting with my professor.”

Commonly Used Stand-Alone Abbreviations and Acronyms

Many abbreviations and acronyms are widely used as stand-alone words. A small sampling of these abbreviations and acronyms is listed in the following tables.

Word Abbreviation
Avenue Ave.
Boulevard Blvd.
chapter ch.
company co.
Incorporated Inc.
January Jan.
Katherine Kathy
maximum max.
miscellaneous misc.
months mos.
North N.
Ohio OH
package pkg.
page p.
pages pp.
paid pd.
Robert Bob
September Sept.
Southwest SW
Tuesday Tues.
University Univ.
Phrase Acronym
Alcoholics Anonymous AA
Bachelor of Arts BA
Central Intelligence Agency CIA
digital video disk DVD
Environmental Protection Association EPA
Food and Drug Administration FDA
Internal Revenue Service IRS
Parent-Teacher Association PTA
World Wide Web www

Abbreviations with Numbers

Some abbreviations are used almost exclusively to describe or clarify numbers. These abbreviations should not be used as stand-alone abbreviations. In other words, you can use the dollar-sign abbreviation to write “$5.00” but not to write “I earned several $ last night.” Some of these abbreviations can be used within text, such as BC, p.m., and CST. Measurement abbreviations, however, should be used only in tables, graphs, and figures and should be spelled out within continuous text. Some of these abbreviations will be addressed as symbols later in this section.

Abbreviation Purpose/Meaning
300 BC Before Christ
300 BCE Before the Christian Era or Before the Common Era
1900 AD Anno Domini (in the year of the lord)
34 m meters
28 in. inches
6:00 p.m. post meridiem (after noon)
1:00 a.m. ante meridiem (before noon)
15 cm centimeters
No. 8 number
85 lbs. pounds
#5 number
11:30 a.m. EST Eastern Standard Time
4 hr. 10 min. 30 sec. hours, minutes, and seconds
4 + 3 plus
½ = .5 equals
7 ft. feet
7n < 21 is less than
432 ≠ 430 does not equal
44 cu. in. cubic inches

Abbreviations in Academic Writing

Academic citations include their own set of common abbreviations. They vary somewhat depending on the citation style you’re using, so always follow your specific style guidelines. Some typical academic citation abbreviations are provided here. (For much more on documentation, see Chapter 22 "Appendix B: A Guide to Research and Documentation".)

Abbreviation Purpose/Meaning
anon. anonymous
b. born
c. or ca. circa; about (used with dates)
ch. or chap. chapter
d. died
ed., eds. editor, editors
et al. et alia (Latin: “and others”)
illus. illustrated
n.d. no date available
n.p. no publisher information available
p., pp. page, pages
vol., vols. volume, volumes

Topic- or Profession-Specific and Incident-Specific Abbreviations

If you are writing for an audience that is familiar with a specific vocabulary that incorporates abbreviations—for example, readers with a strong military base—you can use those abbreviations freely. But be aware when you are writing for readers who do not share that common knowledge base that you will have to spell out abbreviations.

Incident-specific abbreviations are created for use in one specific situation and thus require obvious references so the audience can understand their meaning. For example, say you are writing a story about a teacher named Mr. Nieweldowskilty. If you refer to him by his full name once and then note that students call him Mr. Niews for short and then refer to him as Mr. Niews the rest of the time, your audience can easily understand that Mr. Niews is short for Mr. Nieweldowskilty. But if you write a second story about him, you cannot assume that readers will know the abbreviated name, Mr. Niews.

Recognizing and Using Symbols

Symbols are actually a form of abbreviating and are used widely in mathematics, on maps, and in some other situations. Here’s a small sample:

75% Percent sign
#5 Number sign
4 + 3 Plus sign
@ At sign
$5.00 Dollar sign
5¢ Cents sign
½ = .5 Equals sign
432 430 Not equal to sign
> Greater than
7n 21 Less than or equal sign
© Copyright
98.6º Degrees

Key Takeaways

  • You should become familiar with common abbreviations so you can use them in casual situations and in tables and figures.
  • As a rule, do not use abbreviations in formal writing except within citations.
  • Keep your audience in mind when you decide whether to use abbreviations.
  • Many symbols are used in mathematics, on maps, and in other situations.


  1. Write a short poem using as many abbreviations as possible.
  2. Make a copy of a scholarly paper. Highlight all the abbreviations.
  3. Make a list of twenty abbreviations or symbols that are not included in the lists in this section.