Jots and Tittles: Short and sweet.

You wouldn’t credit it, but the proper use of abbreviations can sometimes confuse people. Even teachers seem to prefer to avoid this particular subject: I cannot recall ever having been taught when to use or how to punctuate abbreviations.

It’s small wonder, though, that people get confounded when no two authorities appear able to decide on naming conventions. In particular, what exactly is an “acronym”? Opinions differ, but here I am using what seems to me the most common definitions of various different types of abbreviation:

An initialism is an abbreviation made up the initial letters of the (important) words in the phrase it represents. So the British Broadcasting Corporation is known as the BBC, the United States of America is the USA and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees is referred to as the UNHCR.
An acronym is a type of initialism which is pronounced as a word (and often spells out a real word), as opposed to a series of letters. A very famous acronym is MASH (or, as it was conventionally spelled, M*A*S*H), which stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Other examples include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural OrganizationUNESCO.
A contraction is when parts of a word or phrase are removed, generally from the middle, often creating a new, shorter word. We are familiar with contractions in everyday English: don’t, for example, is a contraction of do not: the apostrophe marks the place from where the letters were removed. Other contractions include int’l for international; cellphone for cellular telephone; and Mr, a contraction of master. Of course, we can contract words by removing the beginning (and sometimes also the end) of a word: flu is influenza, a fridge is a refrigerator (notice the slight change in spelling to preserve the pronunciation), and phone, of course, is a telephone.
In the strict sense of the word, an abbreviation is when you simply remove the end of a word: approx. for approximately, min. for minute, and so on.

One question, which on the face of it would appear to be a simple one to answer, is: Should these abbreviations, initialisms and so on be written in capitals or small letters?

Initialisms and acronyms, you might think, are always spelled with capitals. Think of CNN, DVD, NAFTA and the SALT treaty.

But not so fast. First of all, I can think right off the top of my head of two acronyms which are written in small letters: radar and laser. The former actually stands for “Radio Detection And Ranging”, while the latter stands for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”. The acronyms have now entered the English language as words in their own right, and so are treated as actual words — few of us probably realise they even are acronyms.

Another consideration is that, on this point, house styles can vary. By house styles, I mean the grammar and spelling rules used by a particular publishing house or news organisation. Some news organisations, most notably the BBC, write acronyms in small letters with an initial capital letter. Thus, if you go to the BBC website, you will see references to Nasa and Asbos (an ASBO is an Anti-Social Behaviour Order). This is also the case with many initialisms (Pc for Police constable), but, confusingly, if they are titles of organisations or other entities, not always: UAE for United Arab Emirates, for example. And yet even the BBC is prepared to talk about CDs and DVDs.

Then again, there is a whole raft of initialisms which are written in small letters. These include those little abbreviations like e.g. and i.e., which perform some very basic tasks — we’ll meet them later.

Another question: When do we use full stops (or periods)? You may have noticed that few of the abbreviations I have written here include full stops: this will be especially true if you are American.

To be sure, in the past, initialisms, acronyms and abbreviations used to use full stops all over the place, while contractions used either full stops or apostrophes: we wrote F.B.I., N.A.T.O., Gen., Mrs. and ’phone. A popular TV series in the 60s was called The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

These days, we’re less concerned with punctuation. Initialisms and acronyms are increasingly spelled without full stops. Many contractions that used to use apostrophes now do not (phone and flu are two examples that have already been mentioned), although American English still occasionally uses them. Contractions involving verbs, however, continue to use apostrophes (we’re, can’t and so on).

One area where British English has recently made a departure from standard practice is in its use (or non-use) of the full stop in contractions. Americans find it especially confusing to find that British publications often insist on spelling, for example, Sgt without a full stop, while still using the full stop for Maj.

The rule is actually quite simple, if a little weird. If the contraction ends with the last letter of the word it is short for, do not use a full stop; otherwise, a full stop is required. So, in British English, the following contractions and abbreviations still require a full stop:

  • Maj. (major)
  • max. (maximum)
  • Prof. (professor)
  • Esq. (esquire)
  • approx. (approximately)

The following, however, require a full stop in American English, but not in British English:

  • Sgt (sergeant)
  • Mrs (mistress)
  • Dr (doctor)

If you want to write the plural, add an S; if the non-pluralised version requires a full stop, add a full stop, otherwise do not: Majs., Profs., Sgts and Drs for the plural.

Finally, we mentioned “e.g.” and “i.e.” earlier: these are two abbreviations which commonly cause confusion as some writers are unsure exactly what they mean. They are, in fact, Latin abbreviations, and it’s important to realise that although they are Latin abbreviations, when we read them out loud, we must read out what they mean in English. We do not (or should not) say “Ee Gee”, but “for example” — because that is what it means. The abbreviation “i.e.”, incidentally, means “that is”:

I like many different kinds of food, e.g. [for example] roast lamb.

I eat ice cream in the hot months, i.e. [that is] in summer.

Remember that “e.g.” gives an example of what you are talking about, while “i.e.” repeats what you just said but in a slightly different way.

Here is a list of some of the more common Latin abbreviations and what they mean:

Abbreviation Latin English
a.m. ante meridiem before noon
c. circa approximately
cf. confer compare (with)
e.g. exempli gratia for (the sake of) example
et al. et alia and others
etc. et cetera and so on
ibid. ibidem in the same place (which was cited before)
i.e. id est that is to say
inst. instant (of) this month
lb. libra pound (in weight)
loc.cit. loco citato at the place cited
no numero number
op.cit. opere citato in the work quoted
p.a. per annum per year
p.m. post meridiem after noon
q.v. quod vide which see
ult. ultimo (of) last month
v. vide see
viz. videlicet namely
vs versus against

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