Pay attention to the format of abbreviations you’re reading about. If your sources use all caps or periods between or periods with spaces or whatever, it’s probably a good idea for you to do the same. If you’re writing a paper in a specific style, check the style guide.
I’ve also found it helpful to know that the initials of someone’s name get spaced apart.
- One sometimes wonders if cultural studies hasn’t prospered because, under the guise of serious intellectual analysis, it gives the customers what they most want—easy pleasure, more TV.
~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”
- You may be entranced with what you’re learning about flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the I.Q. potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.
~from Stephen King’s On Writing
- Again and again characters (the bad ones like Lloyd Henreid as well as the good ones like Stu Redman and Larry Underwood) mention the fact that “all that stuff [i.e., weapons of mass destruction] is just lying around, waiting to be picked up.”
~from Stephen King’s On Writing
- Your ordinary day trader, if any of those still exist, enjoys far greater access to economic and market data than men like J. P. Morgan did when they were running Wall Street.
- After the stock market closes in the U.S., for instance, American investors begin to look to the S.&P. futures market to figure out where prices might be headed.
- You have only to turn on CNBC or go online to find that the Japanese market is cratering or the VIX index soaring.
~from The New Yorker‘s “Financial Page” Nov. 10, 2008
- We had lived in Southeast Asia for a year right after we were married . . . and had suffered from a number of strange diseases. . . . I had a few embarrassing gynecological problems that required visits to the Clinic for Wormen [sic].
~from Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam
How Abbreviations Work
Good luck to you on this one!
Abbreviations vary widely by style guide, though thankfully the variations are minimal. The New York Times, for example, puts periods between all initialisms (abbreviations made by combining the first letter of each word)—T.V., P.C., U.N., etc—while other style guides, such as MLA, prefer the trend of no periods and no spaces with capital letters: BC, US, PhD, etc.
Style guides offer lists of particular abbreviations, especially those used regularly in their articles. MLA, for example, shows “[sic]” (meaning “thus in the source”) inside parentheses or brackets and without a period or italics, while other style guides might use italics since it comes from Latin and italics indicate foreign words. These abbreviations lists can also help you choose the most appropriate abbreviation, such as between e.g. (meaning “for example”) and i.e. (meaning “that is”). The MLA style guide also notes that e.g. and i.e. would be followed by a comma unless placed inside parentheses or other punctuation, though other style guides keep the comma regardless.
While style guides will differ, here are some general guidelines that might explain some of the irregularities:
- Initialisms that might possibly be confused as words—such as US being us—are often given periods after each letter. Other examples you might see are G.E. and C.E.O. Again, some style guides still don’t use the periods, but this explains why others might.
- Acronyms, which are initialisms said as words rather than letters, generally use capital letters but no periods: NASA, for example. The exceptions are those acronyms that have become generic words, such as scuba and laser.
- Syllabic abbreviations, where the first syllable(s) from each word are put together to form a new word, such as Interpol from International police, don’t use a period and capitalization is determined by the first letters of the words.
- Initials in names of people, such as J. P. Morgan, usually get both a period and a space.
- Initials of companies, such as S.&P. standing for Standard and Poor’s, sometimes get periods but almost never spaces. For example, the department store Penney’s could be JCPenney’s or J.C.Penney’s, unless referring to the name of the founder or the full official (unabbreviated) name of the company: J. C. Penney Corporation, Inc.
- Radio and television stations use capital letters but no periods (NBC, KUTV, KSL, etc.). Same with the two-letter abbreviations for states (UT, OR, AZ, etc.) and the three-letter abbreviations for stocks (JCP, etc.).
- Lowercase initialisms, such as a.m. and p.m., generally use periods and no space, but there are plenty of exceptions without periods, such as mph and rpm, so you’ll want to check on each particular usage.
- Abbreviations where a word has been shortened, thus ending with a lowercase letter, such as Jan. or Tues. or appt., are usually capped by a period. These, however, should not be used in the text of a paper but only in a parenthetical citation or works cited page. In the text, these words should be spelled out. (FYI: “etc.” spelled out is “et cetera.”)
- Note that in date abbreviations, BC comes after the year, as in 700 BC, while AD comes before, as in AD 1634. The alternatives, CE and BCE (for “common era” and “before common era”) both come after the year.
- Punctuation after an abbreviation remains normal (see commas and such in examples above) with the exception of the period. At the end of a sentence, do not double up periods but let the abbreviation’s period stand for both.
On a final note, watch that you don’t sound ridiculous by repeating the last word of an abbreviation: say ATM, not ATM machine; PIN, not PIN number; etc. 😀