The rules about abbreviations are very simple.
Or very complicated, depending on how closely you want to look at it!
The great myth about English is that its usage is all bound up in watertight rules that 95% of people neither know nor care about. In reality, it’s watertight as a sieve and 99.9% of people carry on believing the myth.
The rules of language are constantly evolving and one area in which there’s still a great muddle is abbreviations, where different people follow different conventions.
“So,” I hear you declare, “why worry? I can do what the heck I like!” [I’ve edited your words – this is a family blog]
Well, not really. For one, there are still rules and if there’s one thing that remains constant it’s that where there are different options you should choose one and stick with it. Whatever choices you make, if you are inconsistent your writing will appear sloppy. For another thing, whilst some options may not be ‘wrong’ in the absolute sense, they nevertheless run against modern convention and your business communications need to look in-touch.
Abbreviation vs Contraction
Well, already the worms are wriggling from the can. These distinctions have all sorts of overlap and grey areas.
In common understanding, an abbreviation is any shortening of a word or phrase – anything from can’t to NATO. Grammatically, though, there are distinctions. A contraction is where letters have been missed out – often to make words or groups of words easier to pronounce – e.g. I’m, didn’t. (The rules for punctuating these are covered in my entry on apostrophes)
An abbreviation is where a shortened form of a word is used to represent the whole:
St (Saint), Prof. (Professor), abbrev. (abbreviation).
However, some definitions say that examples such as St are contractions, because letters have been removed from the middle of the word.
Others say not because contractions are based on making the word easy to pronounce, whereas abbreviations are used in written terms to represent a larger word. When spoken, you actually say the longer version of an abbreviated word (usually!) whilst contractions alter pronunciation.
Plus, an example such as NATO is in a group all of its own called acronyms, which are words created from the initials of a group of words (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). These are pronounced as words in their own right if the letters allow, as with NATO, or as letters if not, as in BBC. Of course, we also have examples such as ETA, which is pronounced as initials when meaning “estimated time of arrival” or as a word when meaning “Euskadi Ta Askatasuna” – the Basque separatist terrorist organisation.
So you know what? I’m going to scoop up the worms and wrap several rolls of sticky tape around the can. We’re not going to worry too much about the nuances of definition on this one. Let’s just focus on the best way to punctuate it.
Full Stop Needed?
The important issue with abbreviations is whether to use a full stop in order to signal abbreviation. In British English this has always been defined by a clear rule: if the last letter of the word remains, no full stop is needed.
Mr (Mister) vs (versus) Dr (Doctor) Sgt (Sergeant) Ltd (Limited)
Prof. (Professor) approx. (approximately) Maj. (Major)
Whilst essentially straightforward, some abbreviations may bring confusion. For instance, if writing about Reverend Brown, there are actually two possible abbreviations – Revd or Rev. – and since one ends with the final letter whilst the other doesn’t they require different treatment.
Note that in American English a full stop (or period) is required in both cases.
Over the past decade, however, there has been a trend to lose the full stops entirely. Take ‘Prof’ for instance. The BBC News website consistently writes it without the full stop. In newspapers there is some variation, although the consensus appears to be for omission once again. Mind you, even in the most high-minded newspapers you can find a certain confusion. In one online piece, the Telegraph not only retains the full stop for ‘Prof.’ but sticks one in erroneously for ‘Dr’ as well:
So it would seem the tide is turning against the full stop for these types of abbreviation and you should choose whether your business image should look traditionally accurate or moving with the times. In making that decision you should consider whether your target market includes a substantial proportion of older, well-educated people who may well not warm to such innovation!
Whilst still not incorrect, it has gradually become old-fashioned to use full stops after the initials of people’s names, such as OJ Simpson. The same applies to titles, such as MP (Member of Parliament).
We use a number of Latin abbreviations in English which again traditionally have used full stops:
In these cases the tide is slower in turning. Many writers no longer use the full stops in ‘am/pm’ but e.g. is still resisting in many quarters:
The awkward and possibly confusing appearance of ‘ie’ perhaps explains why that is hanging on to its full stops quite doggedly.
One important note about punctuation to keep in mind is that if you use an abbreviation that takes a full stop at the end of a sentence you should not use a second full stop.
Acronyms never take full stops now and indeed some writers take those which can be pronounced as words and use lower case letters. Take a story from today’s BBC News site, for instance:
Here we see ‘Nato’ with only an initial capital in keeping with the grammatical rule for a proper noun. This is part of the natural evolution of language: the word has been around long enough for it to take on an identity of its own rather than acting as shorthand for the longer title. This has already taken its full course with words that are no longer thought of as acronyms but which started out that way, such as ‘laser’ (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) and radar (Radio Detection and Ranging).
This same principle of evolution is why even before the full stops started disappearing we didn’t use them in ‘bra’ or ‘gym’ (brassiere and gymnasium).
Language changes and it may be that it’s been given an accelerated boost by 21st century technology. If we write using full stops for abbreviations on the computer then spell-checking programs will underline our ‘mistake’ and suggest correcting it. Perhaps it just makes life easier to leave the thing out altogether!
But the perils and pitfalls of grammar programs are a subject for another blog post…