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OCT26

Abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms

Filed on: October 26, 2012 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Although all the three terms – abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms – are part of an author’s repertoire, their role is not only to help readers but also to test them, for nothing marks a newbie to a conversation (whether it is SMS chatter, techie talk, or an academic discourse) as much as asking to spell out such terms. 

As a category, abbreviations subsume both acronyms and initialisms: when initials combine to form a pronounceable word ("laser" and "scuba," for example), the word formed is termed an acronym; when the initials remain apart and have to be pronounced letter by letter ("rpm" and "pdf," for example), they are initialisms. And forms such as kg and mm that make up the SI system (Système International d’Unités) are not abbreviations at all but symbols; they neither form plurals nor take the dot as is typical of most abbreviations. Then there are contractions – "Dr" for "doctor" and "dept" for "department" – in which the first and the last letters retain their original positions in the abbreviated versions. British publishers typically dispense with the dot in contractions whereas American publishers do not. However, in both styles, the dot is usually retained when the abbreviated form can be mistaken for a normal word, as in "no." for "number," "in." for "inch," and "col." for "colonel," or to distinguish between two identical forms, as in "St" for "saint" and "St." for "street."

Then there are the true aliens with no lineage, such as "Ms "(UK) or "Ms." (USA), "OK," and the S in "Harry S. Truman," all of which look as though they are abbreviations but have no fully-spelt-out and universally-agreed-upon counterparts.

Ostensibly, abbreviations save space. Indeed, the decision to spell out journal titles in full in reference lists has serious implications for space—but may well save many hours spent in standardizing the abbreviations and make it easier for readers to trace the journals. Dictionaries and many reference works, if they have to manage their bulk, cannot avoid abbreviations. Personal computers, followed by texting and chatting, spawned dozens of abbreviations because they save not just space but effort as well. After all, if a text message cannot be longer than 160 characters and a tweet no more than 140 characters, abbreviations have to be the norm, all the more so since messages have to be generated not with the spacious QWERTY  keyboard but with a keypad with only a dozen keys or so.

Abbreviations also speed up reading not only because they fill less space but also because familiar abbreviations trigger a mental image of the relevant concept directly; in fact, more readers will fumble over "deoxyribonucleic acid" or "dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane" than over "DNA" or "DDT," over "opere citato" or "exempli gratia" than over "op. cit." or "e.g.," and over "carbon copy" or "blind carbon copy" than over "cc" or "bcc."

Whereas abbreviations are merely efficient, acronyms often reflect the origin and evolution of a concept: they begin life as initialisms – a toddler’s first steps or an immigrant’s early struggles – and, over time, take their place as fully independent words thoroughly assimilated into the language and community—the "lasers," "sonars," and "scubas" of the world.

For the copy editor, abbreviations can be a minefield and demand care in handling. It is not without reason that CMOS devotes 41 pages to discuss the topic. Here is an illustrative list of questions that a copy editor is confronted with when dealing with abbreviations.

• Should I use the abbreviation or spell it out?

• Which comes first, the abbreviation or the full version? 

• Once explained, should I use the abbreviated form throughout, or only within a chapter?

• Should I set it in caps, uppercase and lowercase, or lowercase? If caps, should I use small caps? Should either be letter-spaced?

• Do some acronyms take the definite article?

• Can I begin a sentence with an abbreviation?

A comprehensive guide addresses all these queries and more, but it means that rather than searching for iron-clad rules in these matters, it is important to realize that many aspects of abbreviations are matters of style (for instance, APA style, followed not only by the American Psychological Association but by many other publishers in the humanities, does not abbreviate "day" and "year" and abbreviates "hour" to "hr." whereas the Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format abbreviates all the three words and prescribes d for "day," y for "year," and h for "hour").

Abbreviations thus save space and the reader’s time and convey the tone of writing. However, we should not overlook the role of abbreviations in signalling group identity—for example, "CMOS" is clearly "Chicago Manual of Style" to copyeditors but "complementary metal-oxide semiconductor" to chemistry researchers. 

 

 

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

APR24

Avoid starting sentences with a number or abbreviation

Filed on: April 24, 2012 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

As a matter of style, most journals advise authors not to start any sentence with an abbreviation or a number. However, acronyms are generally acceptable in that position, either because they are words in their own right (such as laser and radar) or represent names of organizations (such as NASA and CERN).

In the “Results” section of a typical research paper, you may find it convenient to begin sentences with numbers, as in “15% of the plants survived” or “48% of the patients recovered.” In such cases, either spell out the numbers, as in “Fifteen per cent of the plants . . .” or “Forty-eight per cent of the patients . . .” or rephrase the sentences, as in “Of the treated plants, 15% survived” or “Nearly half (48%) the patients recovered.” Incidentally, “per cent” (two words) is the more common form in the UK whereas most US publishers prefer “percent.”

The same advice applies to abbreviations at the beginning of sentences: either spell out the abbreviation in full or rephrase. With scientific names, it is common to abbreviate the genus to its first letter after the first mention so long as only one genus is being represented (Aspergillus niger at first mention and A. niger thereafter, for example). However, it is better to spell out the genus in full at the beginning of a sentence.

 

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

JAN11

Handling abbreviations of journal names in references

Filed on: January 11, 2012 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Among the many ways in which journals differ in the way they expect authors to format references is the way names of journals are given-whether spelt out in full or abbreviated (Current Science versus Curr. Sci., for example). The abbreviations may also be different - journal being shortened to simply J or to Jnl - but, fortunately, are practically standardized now. This post offers some tips on dealing with the abbreviations.

Look up references in a recent issue of the target journal. In most cases, authors of papers published in your target journal will have already cited the journal title that you need to abbreviate. Examine a few published papers on the same topic published in the target journal to see if the journal title in question is listed and use the same abbreviation.

Look up the websites of abstracting and indexing services. Because abstracting and indexing services cover thousands of journals and typically abbreviate their names, websites of Chemical Abstracts (publishers of CASSI, or the Chemical Abstracts Service Source Index) [1] and BIOSIS (BIOSIS Serial Sources) are likely to include the journal title you are looking for.

Another comprehensive source is ‘All That JAS', or Journal Abbreviation Sources [2], which points visitors to Internet resources, organized by disciplines (from Agriculture and Anthropology to Religion and Veterinary Medicine) that provide full titles of journals and abbreviations of those titles.

Abbreviate the title from the standard abbreviations of its constituent words. If you wish to abbreviate Malaysian Journal of Oncology, for example, and cannot find the title, you can build up the abbreviation using Malay. for Malaysian, J. for journal, and Oncol. for Oncology because this is how these words are abbreviated according to ISSN. Standard abbreviations for common words are available at the ISSN website: http://www.issn.org/2-22661-LTWA-online.php.

Do not abbreviate single-word titles. Names of journals that run to only one word - Nature and Science, to cite two famous examples - are not abbreviated.

Match the target journal's style for abbreviations. Journals differ in whether they end the abbreviated words with a dot, whether they print the abbreviated titles in italics, and whether they capitalize every significant word in the title. Examine the style used by your target journal and follow that.

[1] http://cassi.cas.org/search.jsp   

[2] http://www.abbreviations.com/jas.asp

 

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

SEP13

Contractions are a special kind of abbreviation

Filed on: September 13, 2011 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

In writing names of people along with their titles, do you write Mr Smith or Mr. Smith? Dr Tanaka or Dr. Tanaka? Omitting the full stop or the dot (or the period) at the end of these abbreviations is standard in the UK [1,2,3] but not so common in USA. Here are some more examples: Dept for Department, Ltd for Limited, Edn for edition, Sr for Senior and Jr for Junior.

All the above are examples of contractions—a special category of abbreviations in which the shortened version retains the first letter and the last letter of the fully spelt-out version in their respective positions. As mentioned earlier, the standard UK practice in such cases is to skip the final dot that normally marks a term as an abbreviation, as in Prof. for professor and Pvt. for private.

The convention has one exception, however: if the shortened version happens to be a word in its own right, the dot is re-introduced to prevent the shortened version being read as a normal word instead of as an abbreviation of another word. That is why it is common to write no. for number (numero), col. for colonel, and coy. for company.

Lastly, the dot is also used to distinguish between two identical forms: it is retained in St. for street but skipped in St for saint [3, p. 172].

[1] The Economist Style Guide, 10th edn (2010), p. 153. London: Profile Books. 264 pp.

[2] Butcher J, Drake C, and Leach M. 2006. Butcher's Copy-editing: the Cambridge handbook for editors, copy-editors and proofreaders, 4th edn, p. 118. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 543 pp.

[3] New Hart's Rules: The handbook of style for writers and editors (2005), p. 203. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 432 pp.

 

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

AUG15

Don't capitalize each word when spelling out an abbreviation?

Filed on: August 15, 2008 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | 1 comment

The convention about capitalizing proper nouns-names of people and places-is well understood. What always puzzles me is the tendency among technical writers to elevate common nouns to the status of proper nouns the moment they come together in an abbreviation.

Take greenhouse gases, for example: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and so on. A handy abbreviation for them is the collective term GHGs. But "greenhouse" and "gas" are common nouns, not proper nouns-why write "The emissions of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) continue to increase"? Economists keep watching the GDP, and for a reason. But that still does not mean that they should write "Gross Domestic Product" instead of "gross domestic product" when they feel inclined to spell out the abbreviation in full.

Of course, some abbreviations do require capitals when they are spelt out-but that is because they represent names of organizations, as in UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme" or OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Not that capitalizing these full forms is wrong and criminal, it, nevertheless, is not exactly appropriate.

 

[This is part of the series, Nuances of English, that contains posts and hints that cover the teeny-weeny rather necessary trivialities of the English language that, at last count, numbered quite a lot.]