The Writer’s Toolbox – In Brief, Part I

Happy New Year! Let’s kick off 2015 by starting out small. Very small, that is?we’ll spend a few weeks sorting through the world of acronyms, initialisms, and other small but tricky abbreviations. This week we’ll look at how to label them and when to use the long form. In later installments we’ll get into issues like spacing, punctuation, and whether or not the possessive form takes an apostrophe.

By Any Other Name
What do NASA, CEO, a.m., JPEG, and Dr. have in common? Better yet, what don’t they have in common? The word “acronym” may come to mind, but only a few of those examples are true acronyms. In fact, in the world of abbreviations, there are three loose categories: acronyms, initialisms, and contractions.

Acronyms are words made from the initial letters of the phrase they’re abbreviating, and which are read as a word rather than as individual letters. Examples are “NASA” and “laser” (yes, That’s an abbreviation, though we don’t think of “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” when we see it!).

Initialisms are words made from the initial letters of the phrase they’re abbreviating, and which are read as individual component letters. Examples are “CEO” and “a.m.”

Contractions are words formed from the first and last letters of the word they’re abbreviating. Examples are “Dr.” or “Mt” (for “Mount,” as in a mountain).

In addition to these categories, there are also general abbreviations, or shortened forms of words or phrases?for example, “Gov. Gen.” for “Governor General.”

Not So Simple
Note that I referred to these categories as “loose.” Some abbreviations seem to straddle two categories?like “JPEG,” which is read as both a word and as its component letters. Because the definitions are not strict, and because the abbreviation’s category usually doesn’t matter except in some limited punctuation-related situations (we’ll tackle those another day), It’s best to call all these shortened forms “abbreviations” and save the category names for trivia night.

Long vs. Short
No one wants to read a page of alphabet soup, but sometimes using abbreviations is necessary. Whether you should write out the first instance of the abbreviation is a question of context. Is the abbreviation so common that there’s no risk of confusion? Words like “GPS” or “AIDS” or “MP” don’t need explanation; others, like the abbreviations for Canadian government offices, might. Consult a dictionary, and if there’s any doubt that your readers might not understand, play it safe and use the long form first.

If you do write out the first instance of the abbreviation, include the abbreviation in parentheses immediately after. Then use the abbreviation throughout the rest of the writing:

Example A: Sarah is interviewing with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Because she had an internship with the DFO last summer, She’s hoping her experience will get her the job.

In next week’s issue we’ll look at punctuation questions that crop up (and how Canadian usage may differ from other usage you may have seen in books and magazines). Later we’ll move on to more specialized questions, like how to abbreviate government entities and academic degrees.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.