Using Abbreviations and Acronyms in English

What is an abbreviation?

An abbreviation is a shortened version of a word or phrase that is formed by using only certain letters of the word or phrase. Anything underlined in the following sentence is an English abbreviation:

Dr. Jones, who’s currently undertaking research on DNA, can’t attend the WHO conference being held in the US in Oct. 2016.

Not all abbreviations in this example are similar. Dr. and Oct. are common abbreviations, who’s and can’t are contractions and DNA, WHO and US are acronyms. Contractions and acronyms (acronyms) are subcategories of the umbrella term ‘abbreviation’. So what’s the difference now?

Abbreviations and Acronyms in English


Contractions are usually used to simplify combinations of a personal pronoun and a verb. The omitted letters are replaced by an apostrophe.

Contractions Meaning
Im I am
isn’t is not
let’s let us
she’s she is
you’ve you have


Acronyms (Acronyms)

Acronyms are normally formed by using the first letter (or letters) of each word in a phrase. When these acronyms are read, some are pronounced as whole words (as in NASA ); and in others only the letters are pronounced (as with UK ).

Acronym Meaning
Benelux Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg
FAQ Frequently Asked Question
IT Information Technology
MBA Master of Business Administration
SWOT Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats

How and when should abbreviations be used in English theses?

Abbreviations are meant to make the writing and reading process easier for you and the reader. The following tips will help you achieve this goal:

  • Remember that periods are often used with general abbreviations, but not with contractions and acronyms.
  • You make the plural of an abbreviation by adding an ‘s’ without an apostrophe.

Many CEOs or major MNCs attend the Davos Forum.

  • Introduce each acronym before using it. Place the acronym after the written term the first time you use that term. After that, you should consistently use the acronym.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is headquartered in Switzerland. The IOC President is elected by secret ballot.

  • Note that very well-known acronyms do not need to be written out. However, this list is short.
Examples (by category)
Category Acronym
Countries PRC, UAE, UK, USA, USSR
Science and technology AIDS, AM/FM, CD, DVD, HDMI, HIV, Laser, PC, Radar, TV, USB
time BC/AD, BCE/CE, time zones
miscellaneous AKA, eg, ie
  • Avoid contractions. These are too informal for academically written English texts.

Incorrect: Let’s consider the first theory, which isn’t commonly accepted.

Correct: Let us consider the first theory, which is not commonly accepted.

  • It is also possible to include your abbreviations in a so-called abbreviation list.

When should abbreviations not be used?

  • Avoid abbreviations that are not commonly known (within your field).
  • Introduce an acronym only if you use it at least three or four times in the text. If you don’t use the acronym multiple times, use the full term.
  • Do not start a sentence with an acronym. Write out the term, or restructure the sentence to avoid this.

Incorrect: B2B applications are gaining popularity. Better: Business-to-business applications are gaining popularity. or Applications for B2B are gaining popularity.

Better: Business-to-business applications are gaining popularity. or Applications for B2B are gaining popularity.

Using abbreviations in legal texts

Abbreviations (including acronyms) are frequently used in legal texts. The conventions in this regard must be strictly followed. These differ per country and university. When writing on a legal topic, you must adhere to the guidelines of your country, institution and/or university.

APA Rules About Abbreviations

If you follow the APA guidelines, keep the following in mind:

  • Only abbreviate statistical terms (such as SD and M ) and units of distance and time (such as kg and min ) if you also use a number.

The first step entailed using the centimeter measurements to calculate a mean ( M = 32.4 cm, SD = 3.7 cm ).

  • Use periods only when abbreviating a Latin term (such as g., am, and etc. ) or when referring to something related to your references (such as ed. or p. ).
  • Use periods only when US is an adjective, not when it refers to the country.

The US is classified as a federal republic, with the US Congress playing a key role.

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