How to Use Acronyms in Academic Writing
  • 5-minute read
  • 24th February 2015

How to Use Acronyms in Academic Writing

In academic writing, you may need to use acronyms and initialisms. However, these are easy to misuse, especially when introducing them in an essay. So, how exactly do you use acronyms and initialisms in academic writing? And how to do you avoid using them incorrectly? Let’s take a look.

What Is an Acronym?

Acronyms and initialisms are abbreviations formed from the first letters of the words in a phrase or an organisation’s name:

  • Acronyms are pronounced as one word (e.g. UNICEF).
  • Each letter in an initialism is pronounced separately (e.g. BBC).

We use these abbreviations instead of the full terminology to save space or avoid repetition. For example, ‘UNESCO’ is much shorter than ‘United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’.

People sometimes think there is no need to introduce a well-known acronym or initialism. However, since many have more than one meaning, this can be confusing (as the World Wildlife Fund and the World Wrestling Federation ably demonstrated for many years).

Likewise, even if you are familiar with an acronym, other people might not be, especially if it is specific to your topic. As such, you should make the effort to define acronyms clearly when you introduce them in an essay.

How to Introduce Acronyms and Initialisms

When writing an essay, you should assume that your audience will not understand the abbreviations you use unless you have been told otherwise.

The first time you use one, write out the full terminology with the acronym/initialism in parentheses afterwards, like so:

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was first established…

You can then continue to refer to it as ‘UNESCO’ throughout your essay.

The one exception here is when the acronym/initialism is more common than the actual name. Most people know the package delivery company United Parcel Service, for example, as UPS.

In cases like this, you can sometimes give the shortened version first and full terminology in parentheses:

The delivery company UPS (United Parcel Service) is known for…

After introducing the term like this, you can use the shortened version throughout the rest of your essay.

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 British 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).

In addition, there are a few common words that began as acronyms. These include ‘radar’ (short for ‘radio detection and ranging‘) and ‘laser’ (short for ‘light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation’). However, most people don’t even realise that these words were originally abbreviations, and they are always written with lowercase letters.

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Make Sure to Check the First Instance of the Acronym!

Many people edit and re-structure their essays at the last minute. In doing so, they may accidentally use an acronym somewhere before they defined it in the first draft, making it harder to understand.

To prevent this, though, you can use the ‘find’ function in MS Word:

  • Open the search bar in MS Word (e.g. hit Ctrl + F in Word for Windows).
  • Type the initialism you want to check into the search bar.
  • Find the first use in the document.

If the first use of each abbreviation comes with the full terminology, all is well. If not, find the place you defined it and move the full terminology.

Creating a List of Abbreviations

If your work contains a large number of acronyms, you may want to create a list of abbreviations. Typically, this is a list at the start of a document that defines all the initialisms, acronyms, and other abbreviations.

The reader can then check this list if they need to know the meaning of an abbreviation. This can be especially useful in longer documents, as it saves the reader having to find where the abbreviation is first used and defined.

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.

Comments (18)
Hilary Muchira Gitari
1st October 2017 at 08:04
Write your comments here the article is helpful so far for somebody who is starting using acronyms
Paul
27th September 2018 at 20:11
Thank you a lot. It's an important thing to know if you are a student who needs to make assignments.
Jackie
10th September 2019 at 15:14
Good info. Quick question though, When using more than one acronym in a sentence, is it ever proper to put the Acronym first and then the spelled out phrase in parentheses? e.g. Project LEAD (Leadership in Extracurricular activities, Academics and Daily living). If there's more than one acronym in a sentence, it gets very cumbersome to read. Thanks!
    Proofed
    11th September 2019 at 11:37
    Hi, Jackie. As with anything acronym based, it can vary depending on whether you're following a specific style guide, but as a general rule you'd usually give the full terminology first and acronyms in parentheses on all occasions. I may not quite follow your meaning, though, as presumably you'd be giving the full terminology and abbreviation in both cases regardless of which one you put in brackets? If you find you're using a lot of acronyms, one option would be to give a separate list of abbreviations at the start of the document. Alternatively, if it is just that you don't want to introduce two abbreviations in a single sentence, is there a way that you could break up the sentence or introduce one term earlier in the paragraph? It's hard to recommend anything for sure without knowing the context, so you may want to submit a trial document for proofreading if you'd like specific advice on an issue (just add a comment when uploading the document noting the problem sentence): https://proofed.co.uk/free-proofreading-and-editing-sample/
luke
12th October 2019 at 16:33
What about for long papers, reiterating what the acronym means. I was writing a white paper with an introduced acronym in the beginning and used a few time. That acronym was uncommon and very technical and doesn't get used again for 11 pages or so, then is used fairly often. Is it reasonable to reaffirm the acronym meaning (especially if it's quite technical) if I suspect my readers will have to otherwise look up the meaning again as many of them won't even be in the scientific field? Or will people think that's weird?
    Proofed
    14th October 2019 at 09:05
    Hi, Luke. In a longer paper, you may want to include a list of abbreviations (we've now added something about this to the post): If your work contains a large number of acronyms, you may want to create a list of abbreviations. Typically, this is a list at the start of a document that defines all the initialisms, acronyms, and other abbreviations. The reader can then check this list if they need to know the meaning of an abbreviation. This can be especially useful in longer documents, as it saves the reader having to find where the abbreviation is first used and defined.
Astrid
15th November 2019 at 20:23
Is it acceptable to start a sentence with an acronym (given that the acronym has already been defined previously)?
    Proofed
    16th November 2019 at 10:04
    Hi, Astrid. Yes, it is fine to use an acronym at the start of a sentence.
Robert L Meyer
15th May 2020 at 01:45
If I use an acronym in the beginning of an document to make a long sentence easy to read, do I have to use the acronym every time I use the title again throughout the document? Later in the document shorter sentences are easy to read with the title spelled out, so I didn't think it was necessary to use the acronym.
    Proofed
    15th May 2020 at 13:04
    Hi, Robert. It's difficult to offer any advice without knowing more about the acronym and the context you are using it in, so you may want to submit the document for proofreading if you'd like specific help, but the two main guidelines in this respect are: 1) If you are using a style guide/sheet, make sure to follow its instructions. 2) However you choose to present acronyms, try to ensure clarity and consistency.
Louise
22nd May 2020 at 15:54
Hi, I'm writing an academic paper on tuberculosis. The first time I wrote tuberculosis I include (TB) after it, and then used TB throughout the paper, but in some contexts the sentence sounds better with the full word. Is it okay to use the full word after having abbreviated it or should I be writing TB every time?
    Proofed
    24th May 2020 at 12:21
    Hi, Louise. Unless you're using a style guide that specifies only using the abbreviated version after introducing it, it should be fine to use the full term in places if it helps to ensure clarity.
Jack
1st April 2021 at 20:52
The first time I use the full terminology is inside a bracket: "(subjective well-being)", this is commonly abbreviated to SWB but it is not common enough to not introduce the original phrase first. So, I would end up with a bracket inside a bracket "(subjective well-being (SWB))" which does not seem correct for academic writing. Any suggestions? Thank you in advance
    Proofed
    2nd April 2021 at 09:31
    Hi, Jack. The most common convention for nesting brackets is to use square brackets inside the first set of parentheses: e.g. ‘(subjective well-being [SWB])’. Alternatively, you might be able to rephrase slightly or use a different form of parenthetical to avoid the nested brackets: e.g. ‘This concept, subjective well-being (SWB), is discussed…’ or ‘This concept – subjective well-being (SWB) – is discussed…’. Hope that helps!
Nick
25th September 2021 at 09:53
Hi, if I am writing a long document and using a list of acronyms and abbreviations at the start, do I still need to define an acronym the first instance that it appears in the main body of text?
    Proofed
    27th September 2021 at 09:16
    Hi, Nick. A list of abbreviations can be a helpful point of reference should a reader need to check it, but you won't want to force readers to check the list every time an abbreviation is introduced, so most style guides recommend defining acronyms when they are introduced in the text even if you have a list of abbreviations. It's worth checking your style guide if you have one, though, as there aren't any universal rules on this.
Diane
30th October 2021 at 14:15
Hi Nick! Thank you for this useful page. What if the acronym initially appears in a title or a subtitle? Should I wait until the body paragraph or can I introduce it right away? Thank you!
    Proofed
    1st November 2021 at 09:25
    Hi, Diane. There aren't any universal rules on this. For example, APA style suggests using full terminology in titles and section headings for any abbreviations that need defining, then giving the definitions and shortened versions in the main text. Other style guides permit use of abbreviations in titles and headings, but require them to be defined both in the title/heading and when the term is introduced in the main text (that way, anyone reading the title or section heading will know what the abbreviation means without having to look it up in the text). The key factor, then, is ensuring the meaning of any acronyms used in titles/headings will be clear for your readers, but you may also want to check your style guide for specific advice if you are using one.

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