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.
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.
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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.
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