HtUA in AW (or How to Use Acronyms in Academic Writing)
  • 5-minute read
  • 15th January 2016

HtUA in AW (or How to Use Acronyms in Academic Writing)

Acronyms are common in academic writing, as they ensure concision and readability. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, for instance, is much longer than ‘UNICEF’.

However, although acronyms are useful in academic writing, it’s important to use them properly so that your reader can understand what they mean. As such, there are a few guidelines you should follow.

What Are Acronyms and Initialisms?

Acronyms and initialisms are both abbreviations made up from the first letter of each word in a phrase (as with ‘UNICEF’ above). The only difference is that acronyms are pronounced as a single word (e.g. UNICEF), while we pronounce each letter in an initialism separately (e.g. FBI).

For the rest of this article, we will use ‘acronym’ to refer to both types of abbreviation (partly because this is quite common, but also to save repetition).

The Rules for Introducing Acronyms

The most important rule for using acronyms is to introduce them properly. The first time you use an acronym, provide full terminology followed by the abbreviation in parentheses:

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), there are several options available…

After you have introduced it, you can simply use the shortened version:

A further report from the FBI indicated that…

As above, you should also make sure to use the correct article when using acronyms. When referring to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for example, we use ‘the’ before ‘FBI’. This is more common with initialisms than acronyms.

Things are more complicated when using the indefinite article (‘a’ or ‘an’), as the correct choice depends on how the term is pronounced. For instance, while we would say ‘a National Broadcasting Corporation employee’, we would also say ‘an NBC employee’ because the ‘N’ in ‘NBC’ is pronounced ‘en’.

However, in ‘a NATO plan’, we use ‘a’ because we pronounce ‘NATO’ as ‘Nay-to’. If you’re unsure about the correct article to use in any situation, try reading the sentence out loud to see how it sounds.

Exceptions to the Rules

As with any set of rules, there are exceptions when it comes to acronyms. The main one is that the normal convention of introducing an acronym in parentheses does not apply when the abbreviation is more common than the phrase for which it stands.

Examples here include the delivery company UPS and the BBC, both of which many people know by their initialisms rather than their full names (i.e. United Parcel Service and British Broadcasting Corporation).

If referring to these organisations in your writing, you could therefore use the acronym first and give the full name in parentheses:

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The management structure at UPS (United Parcel Service) is interesting for several reasons.

Other exceptions include acronyms that are now so familiar they have fallen into common use, like ‘TV’ for ‘television’ or ‘laser’ (which originally stood for ‘light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation’). In these cases, there is no need to use the full terminology.

Capitalising Acronyms and Initialisms

Initialisms (i.e. abbreviations that are pronounced letter by letter) are almost always written in all caps (e.g. BBC, FBI, WWF). There are some exceptions to this, such as when ‘Transport for London’ is abbreviated to ‘TfL’. In most cases, though, you will need to capitalise each letter in an initialism.

This varies a bit more for acronyms (i.e. abbreviations pronounced as a single word). Some Australian English style guides recommend only capitalising the first letter of these terms (e.g. Unesco or Unicef). If you are using a style guide, it is thus worth checking it for advice on how to write acronyms. Otherwise, this is simply a matter of preference (just make sure to use a consistent capitalisation style throughout your writing).

Punctuating Abbreviations

Most acronyms and abbreviations are written without punctuation, as shown in the examples above. However, it is common to use full stops in lowercase abbreviations, such as ‘a.m.’, ‘p.m.’, ‘e.g.’, and ‘i.e.’ And some style guides (mostly those that focus on American English) recommend using a full stop between letters in short initialisms, such as ‘U.S.A.’ and ‘U.K.’

Unless you’re using a style guide that suggests adding periods to certain abbreviations, this is usually a matter of preference. But make sure to apply a consistent style! For example, either of the following would be acceptable:

He was born in the UK, but he lives in the USA now.

He was born in the U.K., but he lives in the U.S.A. now.

But mixing these punctuation styles would be incorrect:

He was born in the UK, but he lives in the U.S.A. now.

Make sure to think about how to punctuate abbreviations in your own writing.

Expert Proofreading Services

The rules for using acronyms can vary slightly. As such, if you are using a style guide, you should check what it says about abbreviations and acronyms.

Whichever style you’re using, though, our expert editors can help! Make sure your writing is always error free by getting it checked with Proofed. Upload a free trial document today to find out more.

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