Do you know the correct circumstances for abbreviating a word or words? What about acronyms? When are they permissible? If not, then you are subtracting from the overall quality of your written communications. Granted, some people may not notice your mistakes, but individuals who possess an understanding of acceptable style will surely detect those mistakes, make an assessment of your communication skills, and, subsequently, find them lacking.
When to Use Abbreviations in Formal Writing
While abbreviations are acceptable, and often preferable, for notes, bibliographies, and tables, as well as in technical writing, when it comes to more formal writing, this is not the case. There are, in fact, rules that you should keep in mind when deciding whether or not to use abbreviations in communications such as business letters, school papers, scholarly articles, etc.
Abbreviations for official titles, for example, Prof., Sen., Col., or Sgt., should be used only with someone’s full name and initials, for instance, Col. Wilson Picket or Sen. Harriet Reeves, not Col. Picket or Sen. Reeves. If you are using only the last name, spell out the title, for example, Colonel Picket or Senator Reeves.
Do not abbreviate days of the week (Monday, not Mon.), states (Georgia, not GA.), countries (Syria, not Syr.), continents (Australia, not Aus.), or units of measure (250 feet, not 250 ft.). Note: It’s acceptable to use “D.C.” for District of Columbia, as in Washington, D.C.)
Do not abbreviate words like Avenue, Street, Road, Company, Corporation, River, or Park when they are used as requisite parts of proper names, for example, Washington Avenue, Yellowstone National Park, Microsoft Corporation, Chattahoochee River, etc.
Do not use the ampersand (&) for the conjunction “and” in an official title unless it is actually part of the official title, for example, U.S. News & World Report.
Do not abbreviate sections of books; instead spell them out: volume, chapter, or page.
Use the abbreviations Ms., Mrs., Mr., Ms., or Dr. before a person’s name. (When using “Dr.” before a medical doctor’s name, do not use M.D. after the name.)
Use A.A., B.A. M.A., Ph.D. for college degrees.
Of course, according to the Harbrace College Handbook (1995), there are some abbreviations that are universally acceptable, even in formal writing, for instance, “P.M.” or “p.m.” (post meridian), “CST” (Central Standard Time), “MPG” or “mpg” (miles per gallon), “USMC” (United States Marine Corps), “TV” (television), or “et.al.” (and others).
When and How to Use Acronyms in Formal Writing
Acronyms are combinations of letters (usually the first letters) from a series of words, and these combinations of letters form what is commonly accepted as a word and, thus, pronounced as a word, for example, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), UN (United Nations), AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), and SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).
There is basically only one main rule governing the usage of acronyms in formal writing: When initially using an acronym that might be unfamiliar to your reader, spell out the meaning, followed by the acronym enclosed in parentheses, after which you can use only the acronym. For example, “The Regional Alliance of Mortgage Brokers (RAMB) will convene for its biannual meeting on August 3, 2012 at the Hilton in Atlanta, Georgia.”
In summary, by learning when and how to abbreviate words and use acronyms, you can improve the overall quality of your formal communications and make a positive and perhaps even lasting impression upon your readers.