Abbreviations in research: Common errors in academic writing 

by Dhanya Alex
Abbreviations in research: Common errors in academic writing

“Provided they are not obscure to the reader, abbreviations communicate more with fewer letters. Writers have only to ensure that the abbreviations they use are too well known to need any introduction, or that they are introduced and explained on their first appearance.” 

—From “The Cambridge Guide to English Usage” by Pam Peters1 

David Crystal defines abbreviations as “a major component of the English writing system, not a marginal feature. The largest dictionaries of abbreviations contain well over half a million entries, and their number is increasing all the time.”2 Students and researchers often use abbreviations in research writing to save space, especially when facing restrictions of page or word limits. Abbreviations in research are also used in place of long or difficult phrases for ease of writing and reading. Exactly how abbreviations in research writing should be used depends on the style guide you follow. For example, in British English, the period (or full stop) is omitted in abbreviations that include the first and last letters of a single word (e.g., “Dr” or “Ms”). But in American English, such abbreviations in writing are followed by a period (e.g., “Dr.” or “Ms.”).  

While using abbreviations in academic writing is a common feature in many academic and scientific papers, most journals prefer keeping their use to a minimum or restricting their use to standard abbreviations. As a general rule, all non-standard acronyms/abbreviations in research papers should be written out in full on first use (in both the abstract and the paper itself), followed by the abbreviated form in parentheses, as in the American Psychological Association (APA) style guide.  

Mistakes to avoid when using acronyms and abbreviations in research writing3 

  • Avoid opening a sentence with an abbreviation in research papers; write the word out. 
  • Abbreviations such as a.m., p.m., B.C., and A.D. are never spelled out. Unless your style guide says otherwise, use lowercase or small capitals for a.m. and p.m. Use capital letters or small caps for B.C. and A.D. (the periods are optional).  
  • Avoid RAS Syndrome:RAS Syndrome stands for Redundant Acronym Syndrome…Syndrome. For example, DC Comics—DC already stands for “Detective Comics,” making Comics after DC redundant. 
  • Avoid Alphabet Soup:Alphabet soup refers to using too many abbreviations in academic writing. Do not abbreviate the words if their frequency of appearance in the document is less than three. 
  • Do not follow acronyms with a period unless at the end of a sentence. 
  • When pluralizing acronyms add a lowercase “s” at the end (“three ECGs”); acronyms can be made possessive with an apostrophe followed by a lowercase “s” (“DOD’s acknowledge”). 
  • Acronyms are treated as singulars, even when they stand for plurals. Therefore, they require a singular verb (“NASA is planning to…”). 
  • Articles “a” or “an” before an acronym should be based on the opening sound rather than the acronym’s meaning. This depends on whether they are pronounced as words or as a series of letters. Use “an” if a soft vowel sound opens the acronym; else, use “a.” For example, a NATO meeting; an MRI scan. 
Common writing errors in academic writing

Tips to using abbreviations in research writing 

1. When to abbreviate: Using too many abbreviations in research papers can make the document hard to read. While it makes sense to abbreviate every long word, it’s best to abbreviate terms you use repeatedly. 

2. Acronyms and initialisms: Define all acronyms and initialisms on their first use by giving the full terminology followed by the abbreviation in brackets. Once defined, use the shortened version in place of the full term. 

3. Contractions: Using contractions (isn’t, can’t, don’t, etc.) in academic writing, such as a research paper, is usually not encouraged because it can make your writing sound informal. 

4. Latin abbreviations: Latin abbreviations in research are widely preferred as they contain much meaning in a tiny package. Most style manuals (APA, MLA, and Chicago) suggest limiting the use of Latin abbreviations in the main text. They recommend using etc., e.g., and i.e., in parentheses within the body of a text, but others should appear only in footnotes, endnotes, tables, and other forms of documentation. But APA allows using “et al.” when citing works with multiple authors and v. in the titles of court cases. 

5. Capitalization: Abbreviations in writing are in full capital letters (COBOL, HTML, etc.). Exceptions include acronyms such as “radar,” “scuba,” and “lidar,” which have become commonly accepted words. 

6. Punctuation: Abbreviations in research can be written without adding periods between each letter. However, when shortening a word, we usually add a period as follows: 

Figure → Fig. 

Doctor → Dr. 

January → Jan. 

Note that units of measurement do not require a period after the abbreviation. But, to avoid confusion with the word “in,” we write “inches” as “in.” in documents. 

7. Create a list: Make a list of the abbreviations in research as you write. Adding such a list at the start of your document can give the reader and yourself an easy point of reference.  

References 

  1. Peters, P. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge University Press (2004).  
  1. Crystal, D. Spell it out: The singular story of English spelling (2013). 
  1. Nordquist, R. 10 Tips for Using Abbreviations Correctly (July 25, 2019). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tips-for-using-abbreviations-correctly-1691738 

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