Using abbreviations

Non-native academic writers at all levels, from undergraduates to researchers, often find the manner of placing and presenting in-text abbreviations of regularly used terms such as European Union (EU), radio frequency Identification (RFID), printed circuit board (PCB), etc., somewhat challenging. Consequently, several questions arise:

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  • What is the main guidance for using abbreviations?
  • Do I need to place them in the abstract and the main body of the paper?
  • On first usage, should I place the full term in parenthesis, or the abbreviation?

This article presents some basic rules to follow when using abbreviations, so that you can maintain continuity in your writing and conform to widely held academic conventions.

What is the main guidance for using abbreviations?

  • Abbreviate only frequently occurring terms to avoid repetition
    Don’t introduce abbreviated terms into your paper unless the word or phrase features at least three times in say a 3-4,000 word document, so four instances in total. Any less frequent than this and the reader may not have effectively stored the abbreviated term, thus needing to search back through the document and potentially losing the thread of the content he/she was engaging with.
  • Don’t introduce an abbreviation on page 6 that is not seen again until page 27
    In this case, save introducing the abbreviated form(s) until later in the document, when the term features with more frequency. Or, just use the full form throughout the document instead.
  • Once you have used an abbreviation once, continue to use it
    Avoid switching back and forth between the full and abbreviated forms.
  • Don’t overuse the abbreviation
    This is personal choice, but if you use too many, then you run the risk of confusing your reader by expecting them to remember too many full forms of the respective abbreviations. According to APA 7th edition (6.24): Sometimes the space saved by using abbreviations is not justified by the time necessary for readers to master the meaning.

Do I need to place abbreviations in the abstract and the main body of the paper?

Yes. Abbreviations that are used in your paper should be introduced on first usage in the abstract, and again if/when they appear in the main body of the document. Then, after each definition and introduction of the abbreviated forms, you can continue to use the abbreviation in the remainder of the text.

On first usage, do I place the full term in parenthesis, or the abbreviation?

This is a stylistic issue, but as the abbreviation is considered to be unknown to the reader on first appearance, then introduce the full term first, followed by the abbreviation in parenthesis. For example:

Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are used to support and connect electronic components using electrical pathways. The first PCB was developed by Paul Eisler in 1936.

One final point, if you are writing a document, dissertation or thesis with a large number of abbreviated forms, then you should consider including a table of abbreviations for reference before the man body begins. This will be invaluable for the reader to verify the full definitions as they progress through the document. Also, remember to proofread your document carefully, so that before submission you can be certain that you have been using abbreviations both effectively and consistently.