English Usage Topics > Abbreviations


An abbreviation is a shortened form of a word, compound, or phrase, made by leaving out some of the letters or by using only the first letter of each word. For example, g is an abbreviation for gram in an expression of weight such as 25g, and BBC is an abbreviation for British Broadcasting Corporation. Some abbreviations are more commonly used than the full form.
You have to follow the accepted way of abbreviating, although with certain words there can be more than one way. For example, you can use either cont. or contd. as an abbreviation for continued.
In general, if a word begins with a capital letter, its abbreviation also begins with a capital letter. For example, the title Captain is written with a capital letter when used in front of a name, so the abbreviation Capt is also written with a capital letter.
There are five basic types of abbreviation.

Abbreviating one word

The first three types are used for abbreviating a single word.
The first type consists of the first letter of the word. When read aloud, the abbreviation is usually pronounced like the full word.
  • m = metre
  • p. = page
  • F = Fahrenheit
  • N = North
The second type consists of the first few letters of the word. When read aloud, the abbreviation is usually pronounced like the full word.
  • cont. = continued
  • usu. = usually
  • vol. = volume
  • Brit. = British
  • Thurs. = Thursday
The third type consists of the word with several letters missed out. When read aloud, the abbreviation is pronounced like the full word.
  • asst. = assistant
  • dept. = department
  • km = kilometre
  • tbsp. = tablespoonful
  • Sgt = sergeant
Note that the abbreviations for headquarters and television are of this type but consist of capital letters: HQ and TV. You say each letter separately. In the case of some units of measurement, the second letter is a capital. For example, the abbreviation for kilowatt or kilowatts is kW.

Abbreviating more than one word

The fourth and fifth types of abbreviation are used for abbreviating a compound noun or a phrase.
The fourth type consists of the first letter of each word. You usually say each letter separately, with the main stress on the last letter.
  • MP = Member of Parliament
  • CD = compact disc
  • USA = United States of America
  • VIP = very important person
  • rpm = revolutions per minute
The choice of a or an before an abbreviation of this type depends on the pronunciation of the first letter of the abbreviation. For example, you say an MP not `a MP' because the pronunciation of `M' begins with a vowel sound: /em/.
Note that abbreviations of compound nouns usually consist of capital letters even when the full words do not begin with capital letters. However, abbreviations of phrases usually consist of lowercase letters.
A few abbreviations of this type also include the second letter of one of the words, which is not written as a capital. For example, the abbreviation for Bachelor of Science (someone who has a science degree) is BSc.
The fifth type of abbreviation uses the first letter of each word to form a new word. This type of abbreviation is called an acronym. You pronounce an acronym as a word, rather than saying each letter.
  • OPEC /'əʊpek/ = Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries
  • SARS /sɑːərz/ = severe acute respiratory syndrome
  • TEFL /'tefl/ = teaching English as a foreign language
Most acronyms consist of capital letters. When an acronym is written with lowercase letters, for example laser (= light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), it is regarded as an ordinary word.

Full stops with abbreviations

You can put a full stop at the end of the first three types of abbreviation, or after each letter of the fourth kind of abbreviation. However, people often do not put in full stops nowadays, especially between capital letters.
  • b. = born
  • Apr. = April
  • St. = Saint
  • D.J. = disc jockey
Full stops are more commonly put at the end of abbreviations in American writing than in British writing. The abbreviations commonly used before a person's name (Mr., Mrs., Ms. and Dr.) always have full stops in American English.
Full stops are not usually used when writing abbreviations that are pronounced as words.
  • NATO /'neɪtəʊ/ = North Atlantic Treaty Organization
  • AIDS /eɪdz/ = acquired immune deficiency syndrome

Plurals of abbreviations

If you want to make an abbreviation plural, you usually add a small `s' to the singular abbreviation.
  • hr -- hrs
  • MP -- MPs
  • UFO -- UFOs
However, the plural of p (= page) is pp.
With words that refer to units of measurement, you usually use the same abbreviation for the singular and the plural. For example, ml is the abbreviation for both millilitre and millilitres.
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