The Writer’s Toolbox – In Brief, Part II

Sweating the (very) small stuff? If you’re stumped over how to punctuate abbreviations, you’re not alone. This is one area where usage has changed over time; couple that with the different practices followed by Canadian, US, and UK English, and you’ve got a recipe for confusion.

Periods? Spaces? And what about initials in names? In this week’s column we’ll continue the series on abbreviations, focusing on punctuation and capitalization issues.

Dot or Not?
If you’ve read a lot of older material, you may notice more periods used with abbreviations. Today the trend is toward less punctuation, possibly due to the influence of the scientific community. While a style guide is your best resources for ensuring you’ve covered the various rules and exceptions (the Translation Bureau’s online style guide is a good go-to for Canadian practice, the following general guidelines are helpful when you’re using abbreviations in your everyday writing:

If the abbreviation ends in a capital letter?even if there are lowercase letters in the abbreviation?don’t use periods. This will cover many of the most common abbreviations you’ll encounter (for example, NASA, CEO, GPS, and PhD).

If the abbreviation ends in a lowercase letter, though, use periods after each abbreviated word. Hence it would be Ont. and a.m. and Mr.

There are a few exceptions to the above general rules. First, not surprisingly, you shouldn’t use periods with science or math abbreviations (like sin for sine) or for SI measurement units (like km).

Second, consistent with other traditional abbreviations for provinces (like Ont. or Man.), B.C. and P.E.I. use periods even though they’re all in caps.

Finally, do use periods with initials in proper names; it’s Christina M. Frey and J. K. Rowling.

Example A: Sarah T. Blakely, the CEO, will deliver her keynote address at 10:45 a.m.

Example B: Mr. H. T. Alvarez earned his MBA from University of Toronto.

Example C: The coastline of P.E.I. is 1 260 km, including minor islands.

Spaced Out
A second major question is whether to space the individual letters of abbreviations. This is where the different abbreviation types come in. Initialisms and acronyms?words made from the initial letters of the phrase they’re abbreviating?are almost never spaced. An exception is initials in proper names (so according to Canadian style it would be J. K. Rowling rather than J.K. Rowling).

On the other hand, abbreviated words (like Gov. Gen.) do have a space after the period.

Example D: The Rt. Rev. K. L. Montgomery addressed the crowd.

In next week’s issue we’ll finish our brief survey of abbreviations with a look at plurals, possessives, and whether to use a or an.

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.