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If you are frequently confronted with decisions regarding abbreviations, get hold of a copy of either The Chicago Manual of Style or The Gregg Reference Manual. Both these books contain extensive chapters on proper form in using abbreviations, as well as the possessive and plural forms of abbreviations.

Abbreviate the following:

Titles before names:

Mrs., Mr., Ms., Prof., Dr., Gen., Rep., Sen., St. (for Saint)

Notice that Miss is not an abbreviation, so we don't put a period after it. Ms. is not an abbreviation, either, but we do use a period after it — probably to keep it consistent with Mr. and Mrs.

The plural of Mr. is Messrs. (We invited Messrs. Carter, Lincoln, and Ford.) The plural of Dr. is Drs. (We consulted Drs. Carter, Lincoln, and Ford.) The plural of Mrs. is Mmes or Mmes. (with or without the period).

In most formal prose, we do not use titles, abbreviated or otherwise, with individuals. Ms. Emily Dickinson is simply Emily Dickinson, and after the first use of her full name, Dickinson will do (unless we need Emily to avoid confusion with other Dickinsons).

The abbreviations Rev. and Hon. (for Reverend and Honorable) are not, strictly speaking, titles; they are adjectives. In informal language or when we're trying to save space or make a list, we can write Rev. Alan B. Darling and Hon. Francisco Gonzales. In formal text, we would write "the Reverend Alan B. Darling" and "the Honorable Francisco Gonzales" (i.e., it's not a good idea to abbreviate either Reverend or Honorable when these words are preceded by "the"). Incidentally, we cannot say "We invited the reverend to dinner" and only a cad would invite "the rev."

Titles after names:

Sr., Jr., Ph.D., M.D., B.A., M.A., D.D.S.

These are standard abbreviations, with periods. The APA Publication Manual recommends not using periods with degrees; other reference manuals do recommend using periods, so use your own judgment on this issue. All sources advise against using titles before and after a name at the same time (i.e., she can be Dr. Juanita Espinoza or Juanita Espinoza, PhD, but she cannot be Dr. Juanita Espinoza, PhD). And we do not abbreviate a title that isn't attached to a name: "We went to see the doctor (not dr.) yesterday."

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends not using a comma to separate the Jr./Sr./III from the last name, but you should follow the preferences of the indivdual if you know those preferences. If you list a "junior" with his spouse, the "Jr." can go after both names, as in "Mr. and Mrs. Arthur C. Banks Jr." or "Mr. Arthur C. Banks Jr. and Gloria Banks — but not Arthur C. and Gloria Banks Jr. You should avoid using a "Jr." or "Sr." when you have only the last name — Mr. Banks Jr.

Have you ever run across an acronym or abbreviation and not known what it means? Try using the Acronym Finder. Just type in the letters and click on Search. Out of a database of over 190,000 abbreviations and acronyms, the Finder will probably discover what you're looking for.

Names of

  • familiar institutions — UConn, MIT, UCLA, CIA, FBI, NATO
  • countries — U.S.A., U.K.
  • corporations — IBM, CBS, NPR, CNN, ITT
  • famous people — LBJ, FDR, JFK, MLK
  • very familiar objects — TV, VCR, CD-ROM.

Notice that U.S.A. can also be written USA, but U.S. is better with the periods. Also, we can use U.S. as a modifier (the U.S. policy on immigration) but not as a noun (He left the U.S. U.S.A.).

Terms of mathematical units: 15 in., 15 ft, 15 kg, 15 m, 15 lb

Generally, you would use these abbreviations only in technical writing. There is a space between the number and the abbreviation. Notice that we do not put an s after such abbreviations even when the plural is indicated. Also, we do not use a period with such abbreviations except for in. when it might be confused with the preposition in.

When the term of measurement is used as a modifier, we put a hyphen between the number and the term of measurement: a 15-ft board, a 6-lb line, etc.

Long, common phrases, such as IQ (Intelligence Quotient), rpm (revolutions per minute), mph (miles per hour), and mpg (miles per gallon).
Such abbreviations are acceptable even in formal academic text and may be used without periods.

Words used with numbers: He left at 2:00 a.m. She was born in 1520 B.C.

Either lower or upper case letters can be used with A.M., a.m., P.M., p.m. The abbreviation B.C. (before Christ) is used after the date; A.D. (anno domini, "in the year of the Lord") appears before the date. The abbreviations B.C. and A.D. are sometimes replaced with B.C.E. (before the common era) and C.E. (common era), both used after the date (although one must add that those abbreviations are neither widely used nor commonly understood). Sometimes you will see 790 BC and AD 78 written without periods and written in SMALL CAPS. Note that many style books are now recommending SMALL CAPS for all appearances of acronyms, such as NAACP or NCAA. The effect of this practice is to allow the acronym to blend more smoothly with the rest of the text.

It is considered bad form to use these abbreviations without a specific number attached to them: "We'll do this in the a.m." or "We'll do this tomorrow a.m."

Common Latin terms: etc. (et cetera — and so forth), i.e. (id est — that is), e.g. (exempli gratia — for example), et al. (et alii — and others).

The abbreviation i.e. (i.e., that is) is often confused with other abbreviations (e.g., e.g.). The i.e. generally is used to introduce matter that is explanatory as opposed to being the name of an example or list of examples. If you can say for example as a substitute for the abbreviation, you want to use e.g., not i.e. Do not italicize or underline these abbreviations. Most sources recommend avoiding the use of Latin abbreviations except within parenthetical notes and some sources say not to use Latin abbreviations at all (use the English terms instead) except within citations or reference lists. Good advice.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using a comma after i.e. or e.g. in order to set off those abbreviations as introductory modifiers. Other resources say not to bother with the comma, but the comma makes good sense.

Except in the business of formally citing material you've used in research, it's a good idea not to use et al. when you mean "and others." And don't use etc. as a lazy person's way of getting out of work. Spell out the word versus unless you're reporting game scores, when you would use vs.; when you're citing legal documents, use the abbreviation v.

Names of states and territories in references and addresses, but not in normal text. Abbreviations accepted by the U.S. Postal Service (including abbreviations for words like Boulevard and Alley) are listed online. Do not use state abbreviations simply to save time or space except in an address on an envelope or list. We do not use periods with state abbreviations: CT, NY, NJ. We use D.C. after the name of the city within the District of Columbia: Washington, D.C.; the APA Manual does not use periods with DC. The U.S. postal service, incidentally, does not insert a comma between the city and the abbreviated state name: Hartford CT, Portland OR — at least not in the addresses on envelopes.

Abbreviate "Saint" in U.S. place names, as in St. Louis and St. Petersburg, Florida, and the St. Lawrence River. For the same word in other countries, you might have to consult a good dictionary (one that contains place names): St./Saint Martin's in the Fields, Saint Moritz, Saint Lucia, Mont-Saint-Michel, Saint Petersburg (Russia). When the word Saint is used to refer to a holy person, spell out the word — Saint Theresa, Saint Francis of Assisi. If an institution is named after a saint, spell out the word Saint unless you have some reason to save space — Saint Francis Hospital, Saint Joseph College, Saint Joseph's University. It is wise, as always, to consult the actual institution. Colleges, universities, and hospitals named after Saint Mary are about evenly divided between St. and Saint, but in formal situations, Saint seems to be favored more frequently.

Don't abbreviate the following:

(In formal academic prose it is considered bad form to abbreviate words simply to save space, time, or energy.)

  • Words such as through (thru), night (nite).
  • Days of the week or months of the year (in the normal flow of text).
  • Words at the beginning of a sentence.
  • People's names such as Chas. (for Charles) or Jas. (for James), unless those abbreviations have come to be accepted as nicknames for those particular individuals.
  • States' names such as Mass. (for Massachusetts) or Conn. (for Connecticut). When appropriate (as in the addresses for envelopes), use the U.S. postal service's approved two-letter abbreviations: MA, CT (without periods).
  • Courses such as econ (for economics) or poli sci (for political science).

Spacing and Periods

Abbreviations of units of measure are written without periods (with the exception of "in" when it could be confused with the preposition). We use periods for most lower-case abbreviations such as e.g. and i.e. and c.o.d. For very common abbreviations, leave out the periods, as in rpm and mph. When an abbreviation with a period ends a sentence, that period will suffice to end the sentence: He lives in Washington, D.C. Suffixes for people's names require periods: Joe Smith Jr. lives in Erie. In formal text it is not a good idea to abbreviate military titles — Lieutenant Colonel Chester Piascyk — but in informal text Lt. Col. Chester Piascyk would be acceptable. (Note the space after "Lt.") Academic degrees can be written with periods or not, but don't insert spaces — Ph.D. or PhD, M.B.A. or MBA — within the degree.

People's initials are usually followed by a period and a space — W. E. B. DuBois — but you need to be careful that a line-break doesn't come in the middle of someone's initials. (You can impose what is called a "forced space" or "non-breaking space" by holding down the option key while you hit the space bar.) You will find exceptions to this rule in the way that some companies write their name: JCPenney (no spaces or periods), L.L. Bean (no space in the initials), etc. In normal text, writers can safely ignore corporate aberrations in spacing and capitalization. (Some editors write Harry S Truman without a period after the "S," because the initial didn't really stand for anything, but the Truman Presidential Museum and Library contends that that practice is silly. Still, you will often find Truman's name written sans period in highly regarded places.) When a person's initials stand alone — either as a nickname, "Come here, JT!" — or as a common shortcut — JFK (for John Fitzgerald Kennedy) or LBJ (for Lyndon Baines Johnson) — type them without spaces or periods. Professional designations such as CPA (Certified Public Accountant) or CLU (Certified Life Underwriter) are separated from the last name with a comma and are written without spaces or periods, as in Bertha Bigknot, CPA, unless the designation is accompanied by an academic degree, as in Foxy Reynard, Ph.D., C.L.U.

Acronyms

There is a difference between acronyms and abbreviations. An acronym is usually formed by taking the first initials of a phrase or compounded-word and using those initials to form a word that stands for something. Thus NATO, which we pronounce NATOH, is an acronym for North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and LASER (which we pronounce "lazer"), is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. FBI, then, is not really an acronym for the Federal Bureau of Investigation; it is an abbreviation. AIDS is an acronym; HIV is an abbreviation. URL is an abbreviation for Uniform Resource Locator (World Wide Web address), but many people pronounce it as "Earl," making it a true acronym, and others insist on pronouncing it as three separate letters, "U * R * L," thus making it an abbreviation. The jury is still out. (I vote for Uncle Earl.)

It appears that there are no hard and fast rules for using periods in either acronyms or abbreviations. More and more, newspapers and journals seem to drop the periods: NAACP, NCAA, etc. Consistency, obviously, is important.

Using articles with abbreviations and acronyms:
One of the most often asked questions about grammar has to do with the choice of articlesa, an, the — to precede an abbreviation or acronym. Do we say an FBI agent or a FBI agent? Although "F" is obviously a consonant and we would precede any word that begins with "F" with "a," we precede FBI with "an" because the first sound we make when we say FBI is not an "f-sound," it is an "eff-sound." Thus we say we're going to a PTO meeting where an NCO will address us. We say we saw a UFO because, although the abbreviation begins with a 'U," we pronounce the "U" as if it were spelled "yoo." Whether we say an URL or a URL depends on whether we pronounce it as "earl" or as "u*r*l."