b. Abbreviations and Acronyms

Abbreviations and Acronyms

Abbreviations (the shortened form of a word or phrase) and acronyms (words formed from the initial letters of a phrase) are commonly used in technical writing. In some fields, including chemistry, medicine, computer science, and geographic information systems, acronyms are used so frequently that the reader can feel lost in an alphabet soup. However, the proper use of these devices enhances the reading process, fostering fluid readability and efficient comprehension.

Some style manuals devote entire chapters to the subject of abbreviations and acronyms, and your college library no doubt contains volumes that you can consult when needed. Here, I provide just a few principles you can apply in using abbreviations and acronyms.



  • Typically, abbreviate social titles (Ms., Mr.) and professional titles (Dr., Rev.).
  • In resumes and cover letters, avoid abbreviations representing titles of degrees (e.g., write out rather than abbreviate “Bachelor of Science”).
  • Follow most abbreviations with a period, except those representing units of measure (“Mar.” for March; “mm” for millimeter). See the table that follows for further guidance.
  • Typically, do not abbreviate geographic names and countries in text (i.e., write “Saint Cloud” rather than “St. Cloud”; write “United States” rather than “U.S.”). However, these names are usually abbreviated when presented in “tight text” where space can be at a premium, as in tables and figures.
  • Use the ampersand symbol (&) in company names if the companies themselves do so in their literature, but avoid using the symbol as a narrative substitute for the word “and” in your text.
  • In text, spell out addresses (Third Avenue; the Chrysler Building) but abbreviate city addresses that are part of street names (Central Street SW).
  • Try to avoid opening a sentence with an abbreviation; instead, write the word out.
  • When presenting a references page, follow the conventions of abbreviation employed by a journal in your field. To preserve space, many journals commonly use abbreviations, without periods, in their references pages (e.g., “J” for Journal; “Am” for “American”).



  • Always write out the first in-text reference to an acronym, followed by the acronym itself written in capital letters and enclosed by parentheses. Subsequent references to the acronym can be made just by the capital letters alone. For example:


Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a rapidly expanding field. GIS technology . . .
  • Unless they appear at the end of a sentence, do not follow acronyms with a period.
  • Generally, acronyms can be pluralized with the addition of a lowercase “s” (“three URLs”); acronyms can be made possessive with an apostrophe followed by a lowercase “s” (“the DOD’s mandate”).
  • As subjects, acronyms should be treated as singulars, even when they stand for plurals; therefore, they require a singular verb (“NIOSH is committed to . . .”).
  • Be sure to learn and correctly use acronyms associated with professional organizations or certifications within your field (e.g., ASME for American Society of Mechanical Engineers; PE for Professional Engineer).
  • With few exceptions, present acronyms in full capital letters (FORTRAN; NIOSH). Some acronyms, such as “scuba” and “radar,” are so commonly used that they are not capitalized. Consult the table that follows in the next section to help determine which commonly used acronyms do not appear in all capital letters.
  • When an acronym must be preceded by “a” or “an” in a sentence, discern which word to use based on sound rather than the acronym’s meaning. If a soft vowel sound opens the acronym, use “an,” even if the acronym stands for words that open with a hard sound (i.e., “a special boat unit,” but “an SBU”). If the acronym opens with a hard sound, use “a” (“a KC-135 tanker”).

Resources for Further Study

Click here to download Acronyms Table, a pdf of commonly used abbreviations and acronyms from Style for Students Online, available at https://www.e-education.psu.edu/styleforstudents/

For comprehensive online acronyms dictionaries, especially for technical fields such as chemistry and medicine, I recommend these sites:

Online acronyms dictionary at https://foldoc.org/pub/misc/Acronyms

Searchable acronyms database, sorted by discipline, at https://acronymslist.com/





“Abbreviations and Acronyms” was adapted from “2.9: Abbreviations and Acronyms” of Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age (Schall), used according to creative commons CC BY-NC-SA.



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