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IV. Using APA Style in Academic Writing: Abbreviations and Acronyms

Jan 05, 2015 by Jeff Hume-Pratuch

Sometimes the writing of a dissertation or article seems to be the sum of small choices about grammar, syntax, and formatting: Commas or semicolons?  Numbers or numerals? Abbreviations or spelled-out terms? In this post we’ll look at the last of these issues: when and how to abbreviate terms in your academic writing.

First, a quick definition of terms. An abbreviation is a shortened form of a name or term (e.g., postop for postoperative, kg for kilogram). An acronym is an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of a term (e.g., FBI for Federal Bureau of Investigation). All acronyms are abbreviations, but not all abbreviations are acronyms. Since the mid-20th century, acronyms have generally formed pronounceable words (e.g., laser, from light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation); however, the rage for acronyms has outstripped the bounds of pronunciation, and this is no longer a requirement.

When to Abbreviate

Always use abbreviations for units of measurement that are accompanied by numeric values (except day, week, month, year). The APA Publication Manual contains a list of common abbreviations for measurements (Table 4.4), but these are not the only abbreviations permitted in APA Style.  

As always in academic writing, the goal of maximizing clarity should be kept in view when abbreviations are considered. Saving space is not a sufficient reason to abbreviate; the abbreviation must also help the reader to comprehend your point. Here are some questions that can help you decide whether a particular term should be abbreviated in your writing.

  • Does using the abbreviation provide an advantage over not using it? Abbreviating lengthy or complex, frequently repeated terms can speed reading comprehension. For example, a review of a test instrument (e.g., the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale) might involve numerous references to the name; using its abbreviation (WAIS) would be likely to help the reader.  However, a multitude of unfamiliar abbreviations can reduce rather than enhance the clarity of your writing. Even a quite intelligent reader might have trouble deciphering “limited value due to SSS” and prefer the concept to be expressed as “small sample size” instead. In general, it’s best to limit the use of abbreviations to cases where the abbreviation is familiar to the reader and saves space and time.
  • How many times does the term appear? In APA Style, a term should not be abbreviated unless it appears three or more times after its first mention in a paper (APA Publication Manual, 4.22, p. 107); once a term is abbreviated, the abbreviation must be used consistently thereafter. Note also that there is no rule requiring you to abbreviate a term that appears three or more times.
  • Does the abbreviation carry an unintended meaning? In one memorable article, subjects who participated in the follow-up study were designated “the FU group.” This particular abbreviation never made it into print, thanks to an alert copy editor. However, the Wisconsin Tourism Foundation was not so fortunate; it had to change its name and logo when it became aware of the popular meaning of WTF. Moral: Before you create an abbreviation, look twice (or three times) to make sure it can’t be interpreted in a way that would detract from your meaning.

Use of Abbreviations in Text

Once you’ve decided that an abbreviation is called for, find the first use of the term in the text and explain the abbreviation there.

The present study contrasts meta-analysis norms of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale—Revised (WAIS–R; Wechsler, 1981) with its published quota norms. We examined 12 experimental studies of the WAIS–R. . . . The first step was to construct meta-analysis norms for the WAIS–R and examine them for recruitment bias.

Remember to use the abbreviation consistently thereafter. Strictly speaking, APA Style does not allow the abbreviation to be reintroduced in subsequent sections of an article or paper. However, the APA Publication Manual was designed primarily with journals articles in mind. In longer works that are broken into chapters (such as books and dissertations), it is reasonable to reintroduce abbreviations in later chapters if this would be a convenience to the reader. Check with your dissertation advisor or editor (as appropriate) to ensure that there are no objections to doing so.

Group or institutional authors often have lengthy names that profit from abbreviation in text citations. Use the full name at the first citation, with the abbreviation; thereafter, use the abbreviation alone.

  • First use: (American Psychological Association [APA], 2009) or American Psychological Association (APA; 2009)
  • Subsequent use: (APA, 2009)

The corresponding reference list entry should contain the author’s full name, not the abbreviation.

  • Correct: American Psychological Association. (2009).
  • Incorrect: American Psychological Association (APA). (2009).
  • Incorrect: APA. 2009.

Avoid the use of abbreviations in the title of your paper. It’s fine to use them in headings if they’ve already been introduced, but don’t introduce them for the first time there. In general, abbreviations should also be avoided at the beginning of a sentence, unless this would produce an awkward construction.

“Abbreviations” That Aren’t What They Seem

Finally, not everything that looks like an abbreviation should be treated as one. Some words (e.g., AIDS, IQ, laser, radar) that began life as abbreviations are now accepted on their own merit. In APA Style, any abbreviation that is not labeled abbr. in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary may be used without explanation.

You should also be alert to the existence of proper nouns that look like acronyms. This is particularly common among corporations that have undergone much reorganization, resulting in legal names composed of capital letters that no longer stand for anything (sometimes known as “orphan acronyms”). For example, the name of the “Big Blue” computer company is IBM, not International Business Machines, and that extra-crispy chicken came from KFC.

Similarly, millions of 20th-century high school students took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). In 1990, however, the name was changed to the Scholastic Assessment Test, and in 1993 its official name became simply “the SAT.” Should you spell out the name of the test instrument on first use in your paper? That will depend on which incarnation of the test you’re researching. Show your readers the value of your research by paying close attention to the correct form of proper nouns.

  • nimesh says:

    Jul 09, 2016 at 12:40 am

    This is very helpful information. Thank you author!

  • freedom says:

    Oct 10, 2016 at 4:11 am

    thank you

  • Marcheline says:

    Aug 30, 2017 at 3:09 pm

    Hi Jeff - When using acronyms in the journal title of an APA-style reference citation, are they always spelled out? For example, in the journal title, would ALA be: American library association? Also an abbreviation for an area of study like LIS in the journal title, that would be: library information science?

  • Sally Jensen says:

    Sep 01, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    One of APA Style's guiding principles is "Call people [and journals] what they want to be called" (APA Publication Manual, 6th ed., 3.11, p. 72). So the quick answer is, always use whatever the journal uses as its official name (e.g., it's "JAMA Cardiology" not "Journal of the American Medical Association Cardiology"). Hope this helps, Jeff

  • Andrea Nagy says:

    Mar 06, 2018 at 2:19 am

    Hi Jeff, may I ask you about the usage of capital letters and/or small letters inside acronymes? Why do we insert small ones? Just for differenciate from other similar ones? Or do we show that is inside the word? eg.: PhD, BSc I found this: Master of Teaching and Learning Programme - abbreviated MTchLng why not MTL or MTLP. Is there a kind of freedom of author? I wait for your kind response, Andrea That's a good question! When it comes to abbreviations of academic degrees, the abbreviation is usually either a long-established custom (in the case of PhD) or is standardized by the group that creates or accredits the degree program. There is no rule in APA Style (or anywhere else, as far as I know) that covers the creation of such acronyms, and usage may vary from one university to another. For example, Durham University, in the UK, uses MTL for Master of Teaching and learning (https://www.dur.ac.uk/university.calendar/volumei/academic_dress/#MTL), while the University of Waikato in New Zealand uses MTchlng (https://www.waikato.ac.nz/study/qualifications/master-of-teaching-and-learning). All the best, Jeff

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