Proper Ways & Rules to Abbreviate Words

An abbreviation is a shortened form of a word (or phrase) but is pronounced identically to the long form of the word. For example, Mr. is pronounced “Mister.”

Abbreviations are commonly used to save time and space. While some are followed by a period (such as Mr., Prof., ft. and Feb.), others are not (such as cm, min, NY, and mph). Mrs. and Ms. are not shortened forms of other words (so they are not abbreviations). In fact, abbreviation itself is commonly abbreviated as abbrev.

In this guide we will show you the proper way to use abbreviations and share rules which you can use to abbreviate words on your own.


  • 1

    Difference between Abbreviations and Acronyms

    It is important to note the difference between abbreviation and acronym.

    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. It can be called a word-like pronounceable abbreviation.

    For example: NATO is an acronym for North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and LASER is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

    On the other hand, abbreviation is a general concept that has to do with a reduced form of a word or a phrase. Examples: NTA stands for Nation Television Authority in Nigeria, or National Training Authority in The Gambia, PTA stands for Parents-Teachers Association, etcetera.

    You should note the following

    - A word can be an abbreviation but not an acronym. You can only derive the latter from a phrase, while the former from both a word and a phrase.

    - Letters of an acronym are joined together to form a word-like pronunciation, but abbreviations derived from a phrase require pronunciation of the letters in isolation.

    - All acronyms are abbreviations but not all abbreviations are acronyms.

    Now, let’s look at how words are properly abbreviated in English.

  • 2

    Titles before names

    Exceptional Case of Ms. and Miss

    You are expected to put period after all titles placed before names except in the case of Miss, which is not an abbreviation. Note also that even though “Ms.” is not an abbreviation, you are expected to put a period after it.

    Plural of Mr. and Mrs.

    For Mr. and Mrs., maintain the period after them. The plural of Mr. is Messrs. (I’m referring to Messrs. Mike, Hunain, and Olawuyi.), the plural of Dr. is Drs. (We consulted Drs. Hunain, Saffie, and Olawuyi), but the plural of Mrs. is Mmes or Mmes. (Note: with or without the period).

    Reverend and Honorable

    The abbreviations Rev. and Hon. (for Reverend and Honorable) are not titles; they are adjectives. In informal text, when you're trying to save space or make a list, you can write Rev. George W. Bush and Hon. Mommodou Sabally. But in formal text, you’re expected to write "the Reverend George W. Bush" and "the Honorable Mommodou Sabally" (i.e., it's not a good idea to abbreviate either Reverend or Honorable when these words are preceded by "the").

    Titles after names

    These are standard abbreviations, with periods. The APA recommends not using periods with degrees; other reference manuals do recommend using periods, so use your own judgment on this issue.

    Examples: Jawara Muhammed, Sr., King Martin Luther, Jr., Hunain Naseer, Ph. D., Saffie Jobe, M.D., Filly Suso, B.A., Mutiu Olawuyi, M.A., Michael Sly, D.D.S, etc.

    All sources advise against using titles before and after a name at the same time (i.e., he can be Dr. Hunain Naseer or Hunain Naseer, PhD, but he cannot be Dr. Hunnain Naseer, PhD). And we do not abbreviate a title that isn't attached to a name: "We went to see the doctor (not dr.) yesterday."

    According to The Chicago Manual of Style, it is recommended that one should not use a comma to separate the Jr./Sr./III from the last name, but you should follow the preferences of the individual 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. Jobe Jr." or "Mr. Abdullahi Sudais Jr. and Fatimah Abdul-Aziz — but not Abdullah S. and Fatimah Abdul-Aziz Jr. You should avoid using a "Jr." or "Sr." when you have only the last name — Mr. Khaleel Jr.

  • 3

    Popular Names

    Names of familiar institutions, political parties, corporate bodies, famous people, countries, and very familiar objects are expected to be abbreviated thus:

    - Familiar Institutions — MRC, MIT, UCLA, CIA, FBI, NATO, UNILORIN, UNILAG, etc.

    - Political Parties - PDP, APRC, PPP, RP, etc.

    - Corporations — IBM, CBS, BBC, NTA, NPR, CNN, ITT, etc.

    - Famous People — JFK, MLK, MKO, OBJ, etc.

    - Countries — U.S.A., U.K. U.A.E., etc.

    - Very Familiar Objects — TV, VCR, CD-ROM, DVD,CPU, etc.

    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.).

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    Mathematical units

    Technical writings require these abbreviations: 23 in., 6 ft, 25 kg, 15 m, 12 lb.

    Note from above that there is a space between the number and the abbreviation. You do not pluralize your abbreviations even when the plural is indicated – i.e. don’t add s.

    You are also expected not to 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, put a hyphen between the number and the term of measurement: a 15-ft board, a 6-lb line, etc.

  • 5

    Long, common phrases

    Don’t put a period after letters used to abbreviate phrases in these categories:

    - IQ (Intelligence Quotient),
    - rpm (revolutions per minute),
    - mph (miles per hour), and
    - mpg (miles per gallon).

  • 6

    Words used with numbers

    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. Sometimes you will see 790 BC and AD 78 written without periods and written in SMALL CAPS.

    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."

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    Common Latin terms

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

    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 except within citations or reference lists.

    It is recommended in the Chicago Manual of Style that one should use 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.

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