An abbreviation (from Latin brevis "short") is a shortened form of a word or phrase. Usually, but not always, it consists of a letter or group of letters taken from the word or phrase. For example, the word "abbreviation" can itself be represented by the abbreviation "abbr." or "abbrev."
Types of abbreviations
Apart from the common form of shortening one word, there are other types of abbreviations. These include acronym and initialism (including three-letter acronyms), apocope, clipping, elision, syncope, syllabic abbreviation, and portmanteau.
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A syllabic abbreviation (SA) is an abbreviation formed from (usually) initial syllables of several words, such as Interpol for International police, but should be distinguished from portmanteaux. They are unever written in lower case, sometimes starting with a capital letter, and are always pronounced as words rather than letter by letter.
Use in various languages
They prevailed in Germany under the Nazis and in the Soviet Union for naming the plethora of new bureaucratic organizations. For example, Gestapo stands for Geheime Staats-Polizei, or "secret state police". This has given syllabic abbreviations a negative connotation, even though they were used in Germany before the Nazis, such as Schupo for Schutzpolizist. Even now Germans call part of their police Kripo for Kriminalpolizei. Syllabic abbreviations were also typical of German language used in the German Democratic Republic, for example, Stasi for Staatssicherheit ("state security", the secret police and secret service) or Vopo for Volkspolizist ("people's policeman").
Some syllabic abbreviations from Russian that are familiar to English speakers include samizdat and kolkhoz. The English names for the Soviet "Comintern" (Communist International) and "Milrevcom" (Military Revolution Committee) are further examples.
East Asian languages whose writing uses Chinese-originated ideograms instead of an alphabet form abbreviations similarly by using key characters from a term or phrase. For example, in Japanese the term for the United Nations, kokusai rengō (国際連合) is often abbreviated to kokuren (国連). Such abbreviations are called ryakugo (略語) in Japanese. SAs are frequently used for names of universities: for instance, Beida (北大, Běidà) for Peking University (Beijing), Yondae (연대) for the Yonsei University, Seouldae (서울대) for the Seoul National University and Tōdai (東大) for the University of Tokyo.
Syllabic abbreviations in names of organizations
Syllabic abbreviations are preferred by the US Navy as it increases readability amidst the large number of initialisms that would otherwise have to fit into the same acronyms. Hence DESRON 6 is used (in the full capital form) to mean "Destroyer Squadron 6," and COMNAVAIRLANT means "Commander, Naval Air Forces, Atlantic".
Style conventions in English
In modern English there are several conventions for abbreviations and the choice may be confusing. The only rule universally accepted is that one should be consistent, and to make this easier, publishers express their preferences in a style guide. Questions which arise include those in the following subsections.
Lower case letters
If the original word was capitalized, then the first letter of its abbreviation should retain the capital, for example Lev. for Leviticus. When abbreviating words spelled with lower case letters, there is no need for capitalization, therefore no need for a consistent rule.
Periods (full stops) and spaces
A period (full stop) is sometimes written after an abbreviated word, but there is much disagreement and many exceptions.
There is never a stop/period between letters of the same word. For example, Tiberius is abbreviated as Tb. and not as T.b..
In formal British English it is more common to write abbreviations with full stops if the word has been cut at the point of abbreviation but not otherwise: for example, Street — "St[reet]" or "S[tree]t" — becomes "St", but "Saint" — "S[ain]t" — becomes "St".
In American English, the period is usually added if the abbreviation might otherwise be interpreted as a word, but some American writers do not use a period here. Sometimes, periods are used for certain initialisms but not others; a notable instance in American English is to write United States, European Union, and United Nations as U.S., EU, and UN respectively.
A third standard removes the full stops from all abbreviations (both "Saint" and "Street" become "St") .
Acronyms that were originally capitalized (with or without periods) but have since entered the vocabulary as generic words are no longer abbreviated with capital letters nor with any periods. Examples are sonar, radar, lidar, laser, and scuba.
Spaces are generally not used between single letter abbreviations of words in the same phrase, so one almost never encounters "U. S.".
When an abbreviation appears at the end of a sentence, use only one period: The capital of the United States is Washington, D.C.
To form the plural of an abbreviation, a number, or a capital letter used as a noun, simply add a lowercase s to the end.
- A group of MPs
- The roaring '20s
- Mind your Ps and Qs
To form the plural of an abbreviation with periods, a lowercase letter used as a noun, and abbreviations or capital letters that would be ambiguous or confusing if the 's' alone were added, use an apostrophe and an s.
- A group of Ph.D.'s
- The x's of the equation
- Sending SOS's
Conventions followed by publications and newspapers
In the United States
Publications based in the U.S. tend to follow the style guides of the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press. The U.S. Government follows a style guide published by the U.S. Government Printing Office.
However, there is some inconsistency in abbreviation styles, as they are not rigorously defined by style guides. Some two-word abbreviations, like "United Nations", are abbreviated with uppercase letters and periods, and others, like "personal computer" (PC) and "compact disc" (CD), are not; rather, they are typically abbreviated without periods and in uppercase letters. A third variation is to use lowercase letters with periods; this is used by Time Magazine in abbreviating "public relations" (p.r.). Moreover, even three-word abbreviations (most U.S. publications use uppercase abbreviations without periods) are sometimes not consistently abbreviated, even within the same article.
The New York Times is unique in having a consistent style by always abbreviating with periods: P.C., I.B.M., P.R. This is in contrast with the trend of British publications to completely make do without periods for convenience.
Many British publications follow some of these guidelines in abbreviation:
- For the sake of convenience, many British publications, including the BBC and The Guardian, have completely done away with the use of full stops or periods in all abbreviations. These include:
- Social titles, like Ms or Mr (though these would usually not have had full stops — see above) Capt, Prof, etc.;
- Two-letter abbreviations for countries ("US", not "U.S.");
- Abbreviations beyond three letters (full caps for all except initialisms);
- Words seldom abbreviated with lower case letters ("PR", instead of "p.r.", or "pr")
- Names ("FW de Klerk", "GB Whiteley", "Park JS"). A notable exception is the newspaper The Economist which writes "Mr F. W. de Klerk".
- Scientific units (see Measurement below).
- Acronyms are often referred to with only the first letter of the abbreviation capitalised. For instance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation can be abbreviated as "Nato" or "NATO", and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome as "Sars" or "SARS" (compare with "laser" which has made the full transition to an English word and is rarely capitalised at all).
- Initialisms are always written in capitals; for example the "British Broadcasting Corporation" is abbreviated to "BBC", never "Bbc". An initialism is similar to acronym but is not pronounced as a word.
- When abbreviating scientific units, no space is added between the number and unit (100mph, 100m, 10cm, 10°C). (This is contrary to the SI standard, see below.)
Miscellaneous and general rules
- Plurals are often formed by doubling the last letter of the abbreviation. Most of these deal with writing and publishing: MS=manuscript, MSS=manuscripts; l=line, ll=lines; p=page, pp=pages; s=section, ss=sections; op.=opus, opp.=opera. This form, derived from Latin is used in Europe in many places: dd=didots. "The following (lines or pages)" is denoted by "ff". One example that does not concern printing is hh=hands.
- A doubled letter also appears in abbreviations of some Welsh names, as in Welsh the double "l" is a separate sound: "Ll. George" for (British prime minister) Lloyd George.
- Some titles, such as "Reverend" and "Honourable", are spelt out when preceded by "the", rather than as "Rev." or "Hon." respectively. This is true for most British publications, and some in the United States.
- It is usually advised to spell out the abbreviation where it is new or unfamiliar to the reader (UNESCO in a magazine about music, because it refers to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, whose work does not concern the music).
- It is considered acceptable to start off a sentence with an abbreviation, however it is then advised to "ignore" the abbreviation and start the sentence as if it had begun with no abbreviation, but only if it is not the name of a person, place, or thing. For example, "BTW There is a new office manager." would be acceptable, though even without capping the "T", this instance is still accepted.
The International System of Units (SI) defines a set of base units, from which other "derived" units may be obtained. The abbreviations, or more accurately "symbols" (using Roman letters, or Greek in the case of ohm) for these units are also clearly defined together with a set of prefixes, themselves symbolised (abbreviated) with Roman letters (except only for micro, which uses the Greek letter µ), denoting powers of ten. The system is internationally recognised. Periods are not used, except as described below. Unit symbols do not have plural forms.
Units are written either in full, including the base units and their prefixes, or with all symbols. When a unit is written in full, it is written in all lower case. For example, megaampere for MA.
There should never be a period after or inside a unit; both '10 k.m.' and '10 k.m' are wrong — the only correct form is '10 km' (only followed with a period when at the end of a sentence).
A period "within" a compound unit denotes multiplication of the base units on each side of it. Ideally, this period should be raised to the centre of the line, but often it is not. For instance, '5 ms' means 5 millisecond(s), whereas '5 m.s' means 5 metre·second(s). The "m.s" here is a compound unit formed from the product of two fundamental SI units — metre and second.
There should always be a (non-breaking) space between the number and the unit — '25 km' is correct, and '25km' is incorrect. In Section 5.3.3. of The International System of Units (SI), the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) states "The numerical value always precedes the unit, and a space is always used to separate the unit from the number. … The only exceptions to this rule are for the unit symbols for degree, minute, and second for plane angle."
The case of letters (uppercase or lowercase) has meaning in the SI system, and should never be changed in a misguided attempt to follow an abbreviation style. For example, "10 S" denotes 10 siemens (a unit of conductance), while "10 s" denotes 10 seconds. Any unit named after a person is denoted by a symbol with an upper case first letter (S, Pa, A, V, N, Wb, W), but spelt out in full in lower case, (siemens, pascal, ampere, volt, newton, weber and watt). By contrast g, l, m, s, cd, ha represent gramme, litre, metre, second, candela and hectare respectively. The one slight exception to this rule is that the symbol for litre is allowed to be L to help avoid confusion with an upper case i or a one in some typefaces — compare l, I, and 1.
Likewise, the abbreviations of the prefixes denoting powers of ten are case-sensitive: m (milli) represents a thousandth, but M (mega) represents a million, so by inadvertent changes of case one may introduce (in this example) an error of a factor of 1 000 000 000. When a unit is written in full, the whole unit is written in lowercase, including the prefix: millivolt for mV, nanometre for nm, gigacandela for Gcd.
The above rules, if followed, ensure that the SI system is always unambiguous, so for instance mK denotes millikelvin, MK denotes megakelvin, K.m denotes kelvin.metre, and km denotes kilometre. Forms such as k.m and Km are ill-formed and technically meaningless in the SI system, although the intended meaning might be inferred from the context.
Abbreviation has been used as long as phonetic script existed, in some senses actually being more common in early literacy, where spelling out a whole word was often avoided, initial letters commonly being used to represent words in specific application. By classical Greece and Rome, the reduction of words to single letters was still normal, but no longer the default.
An increase in literacy has, historically, sometimes spawned a trend toward abbreviation. The standardization of English in the 15th through 17th centuries included such a growth in the use of abbreviation. At first, abbreviations were sometimes represented with various suspension signs, not only periods. For example, specific phoneme sets like "er" were dropped from words and replaced with ɔ, like "mastɔ" instead of "master" or exacɔbate instead of "exacerbate". While this seems trivial, it was symptomatic of an attempt by people manually reproducing academic texts to reduce their copy time. An example from the Oxford university Register, 1503:
Mastɔ subwardenɔ y ɔmēde me to you. And wherɔ y wrot to you the last wyke that y trouyde itt good to differrɔ thelectionɔ ovɔ to quīdenaɔ tinitatis y have be thougħt me synɔ that itt woll be thenɔ a bowte mydsomɔ.
In the 1830 in the United States, starting with Boston, abbreviation became a fad. For example, during the growth of philological linguistic theory in academic Britain, abbreviating became very trendy. The use of abbreviation for the names of "Father of modern etymology" J. R. R. Tolkien and his friend C. S. Lewis, and other members of Oxford literary group known as the Inklings, are sometimes cited as symptomatic of this. Likewise, a century earlier in Boston, a fad of abbreviation started that swept the United States, with the globally popular term OK generally credited as a remnant of its influence.
After World War II, the British greatly reduced their use of the full stop and other punctuations after abbreviations in at least semi-formal writing, while the Americans more readily kept its use until more recently, and still maintain it more than Britons. The classic example, considered by their American counterparts quite curious, was the maintenance of the internal comma in a British organization of secret agents called the "Special Operations, Executive" — "S.O.,E" — which is not found in histories written after about 1960.
But before that, many Britons were more scrupulous at maintaining the French form. In French, the period only follows an abbreviation if the last letter in the abbreviation is not the last letter of its antecedent: "M." is the abbreviation for "monsieur" while "Mme" is that for "madame". Like many other cross-channel linguistic acquisitions, many Britons readily took this up and followed this rule themselves, while the Americans took a simpler rule and applied it rigorously.
Over the years, however, the lack of convention in some style guides has made it difficult to determine which two-word abbreviations should be abbreviated with periods and which should not. The U.S. media tend to abbreviate two-word abbreviations like United States (U.S.), but not personal computer (PC) or television (TV), which is a source of confusion. Many British publications have gradually done away with the use of periods in abbreviations completely.
Minimisation of punctuation in typewritten matter became economically desirable in the 1960s and 1970s for the many users of carbon-film ribbons, since a period or comma consumed the same length of non-reusable expensive ribbon as did a capital letter.
- List of classical abbreviations
- List of medieval abbreviations
- List of abbreviations in use in 1911
- List of acronyms and initialisms
- The abbreviations used in the 1913 edition of Webster's dictionary
- "The International System of Units (SI)" (PDF). International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). Retrieved 2008-04-18.
- Abbreviations.com — a human edited database of acronyms and abbreviations
- United States Postal Services, (USPS), Street Abbreviations — USPS Street Abbreviations
- Acronym Finder — a human edited database of acronyms and abbreviations (over 550,000 entries)
- AuctionSlanguage.com — a human edited database of auction related acronyms and abbreviations
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