The Diversity of the Abbreviated Form

Gregg Joe
(Terminology Update, Volume 30, Number 3, 1997, page 27)

The underlying reason for presenting this article is to respond in part to a growing number of difficult questions directed at the Translation Bureau by clients on the recommended spelling of new abbreviations or existing ones that have traditionally been lexicalized in a number of different ways, depending on the source consulted:

  1. written entirely in capital letters;
  2. written with the first letter capitalized only;
  3. written in lowercase;
  4. written with periods and intervening spaces between letters;
  5. written with periods without intervening spaces between letters;
  6. any combination of the above forms.

Language specialists required to advise on the latest trends in usage must first convince the followers of the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (1976) that the practice of putting periods and spaces between the letters of every abbreviation is now considered outmoded in all but a few circumstances. Without the benefit of an official arbiter of usage such as the Académie française in France, researchers must somehow legitimize the present trend to drop any non-essential punctuation susceptible of slowing down the keying and sorting of information. And, in the interest of providing bias-free advice, they must acknowledge the disparate usages favoured by various sources which sometimes advocate a particular spelling, and—what is worse—sometimes more than one spelling, much to the dissatisfaction of users yearning for a definitive answer. As unofficial arbiters of usage, they must also, somehow, discourage the practice of duplicating abbreviations that already stand for other things. For instance, according to TERMIUM®, the linguistic data bank of the Government of Canada, there are already 15 different concepts associated with the polysemous abbreviation bsFootnote 2 (also written BS or B.S.), not to mention the vulgar one. Finally, language specialists must somehow reconcile the unconventional yet catchy spellings promoted by various corporations, spellings that often seem to run counter to conventional rules of grammar and usage.

Most language professionals remain partial to their reference works of choice. They feel that consistency can be established, simply by referring faithfully to the same title. However, many of them may not be aware that their preferred choice is outdated or that consulting more than one source often leads to contradictory results. They may not even be aware of the reasons for maintaining or omitting punctuation and hence are unable to apply basic typographical principles when required to spell new abbreviations being admitted into the language everyday.

To illustrate the problem, the survey below highlights variations in the treatment of selected abbreviations in current dictionaries and language manuals. Each abbreviation is followed by a two-letter reference label that identifies the source of a particular usage. It is understood that the absence of a label merely signifies reference to the base source, the new Gage Canadian Dictionary (1997), without implying any preference in regard to reliability. Reference and source labels are decoded at the end of the article.

Various spellings

AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) or A.A. (American Airlines)NY (Alcoholics Anonymous/American Airlines)

The ABCs or A B C’sNY (i.e. (That Is), the basics) of word processing.

AIDS or Aids (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)FM (The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage) OA (The Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations) (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)

AM (amplitude modulation) (amplitude modulation, i.e. (That Is), radio), a.m./p.m. (Post Meridiem) (time)AP (The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual) AZ (A to Z Business Office Handbook) GR (The Gregg Reference Manual) PR (Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage). Also acceptable as time designations: A.M. (Ante Meridiem)/P.M. (Post Meridiem)AZ (A to Z Business Office Handbook) HW (Handbook for Writers) NY PR (Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage). In reference to time, GC (Gage Canadian Dictionary) recommends the use of caps only in headlines and tables. AZ (A to Z Business Office Handbook) condones the use of caps in business forms and advertisements.

AP (Associated Press) (Associated Press), A&P (Great Atlantic) or A.&P. (Pacific Tea Company Incorporated)NY (short for Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. Inc. (Incorporated)) or at. no. (atomic number)GR (The Gregg Reference Manual) (atomic number)

AT&T (American Telephone and Telegraph Company) (no spaces) or At and T American Telephone and Telegraph Company (American Telephone and Telegraph Co. Company)CP (Stylebook: A Guide for Writers and Editors)

AWOL (absent without leave)GC (Gage Canadian Dictionary) NY (absent without leave). CP (Stylebook: A Guide for Writers and Editors) recommends AWL (absent without leave), but GC (Gage Canadian Dictionary) recommends the following: A.W.O.L. (absent without leave), a.w.o.l. (absent without leave), A.W.L. (absent without leave)

Btu (British thermal unit)AP (The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual) GR (British thermal unit) or B.T.U. (British thermal unit)GC (Gage Canadian Dictionary) NY

CAA (Canadian Automobile Association)GR (The Gregg Reference Manual) or C.A.A. (Canadian Automobile Association) (Canadian Automobile Association)

CD (compact disc)GR (The Gregg Reference Manual) or C.D. compact disc (compact disc)

c.o.d. (cash on delivery)AZ (A to Z Business Office Handbook) GC (Gage Canadian Dictionary) (cash on delivery/collect on delivery) or C.O.D.AZ (A to Z Business Office Handbook) HW (Handbook for Writers) (no hyphens if written out in full)

ESP (extrasensory perception)GC (Gage Canadian Dictionary) GR (The Gregg Reference Manual) or E.S.P. (extrasensory perception)GC (Gage Canadian Dictionary) (extrasensory perception)

EST (Eastern Standard Time)PR (Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage) or E.S.T. (Eastern Standard Time)PR (Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage) or est (Eastern Standard Time)PR (Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage) (Eastern Standard Time)

f.o.b. (free on board)AZ (A to Z Business Office Handbook) GC (Gage Canadian Dictionary) or F.O.B. (free on board)AZ (A to Z Business Office Handbook) or fob (free on board)ST (Science and Technical Writing: A Manual of Style) (free on board)

IBM (International Business Machines)GC (Gage Canadian Dictionary) GR (The Gregg Reference Manual) or I.B.M. (International Business Machines)NY (International Business Machines)

IOU (I Owe You)GC (Gage Canadian Dictionary) GR (The Gregg Reference Manual) or i.o.u. (I Owe You)NY

IQCS (intelligence quotient)GC (Gage Canadian Dictionary) GR (The Gregg Reference Manual) or I.Q. (intelligence quotient)CS (The Chicago Manual of Style) NY (intelligence quotient)

M-G-M (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Incorporated)NY or MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Incorporated)GA (The Gazette Style) (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.)

MP (member of Parliament) or M.P.NY (member of Parliament or military police)

mph (miles an/per hour - no periods)GM or m.p.h.CP (Stylebook: A Guide for Writers and Editors) NY

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) WT or NatoFM

No 3, No. 3GM HW MW WT, no. 3CS HW PR

PO box GA (The Gazette Style) or P.O. boxGC (post office box), P. and O. (Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.)

Q and A T or Q. and A.NY (Questions and Answers)

R & DT (Research and Development), but according to the GM, GR and CA (The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing), no spaces are recommended: R&D

rpm GC GR or r.p.m.CP (Stylebook: A Guide for Writers and Editors) or r/mST (revolutions per minute)

vs. CP (Stylebook: A Guide for Writers and Editors) MW NY (versus); but vs increasingly seen; "v", should only be used in legal documents

Types of abbreviated forms

There are many types of abbreviated forms (or abbreviations): acronyms, initialisms, codes, contractions, truncated (or shortened) forms, and symbols. Note however that CS makes no distinction between initialisms and acronyms; both forms are labelled "acronyms." According to the new 1997 edition of CA (The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing), an acronym is a pronounceable and hence memorable word formed from the first letter or letters of a series of related words, but pronounced as if it were an independent word, e.g., AIDS (or Aids (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)OA), CANDUEC (Editing Canadian English), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), GATT, radwaste (radioactive waste), algol (algorithmic language), Interpol (International Criminal Police Organization) and UNESCO. Some publishers favour the use of initial capitals only for acronyms representing the name of corporations and international organizations, e.g., Alcoa, Amex (American Stock Exchange), Anzac, Benelux, CusoEC (Editing Canadian English), Inco, Nabisco, Sunoco.


As a general rule, no abbreviation should be used unless its long form has already been given in the text.

Acronyms and initialisms

Acronyms no longer require periods, nor are they preceded by the definite article. Furthermore, some acronyms are no longer even written in caps, having lost their proper name status, e.g., algol (algorithmic language). Note also that acronyms representing administrative units are generally written entirely in caps, without periods, e.g., CIDA. Acronyms are commonly used in computer sciences, government bureaucracy, the military, pop culture and in sports.

An initialism is formed from the initial letters only of a series of words, where the letters are pronounced individually, e.g., AFL-CIOEC (Editing Canadian English), BLT (bacon-lettuce-and-tomato), CBC, CRTC, EC, ESP, NDP, NHL, YMCA, IQ, PCBs, UFO. In general, do not use spacing between periods in initialisms, e.g., Ph.D., B.C., U.S.A. In addition, CA (The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing) and GR recommend no periods between letters of an acronym or initialism. In general, initialisms representing administrative units generally take upper-case letters, e.g., TSD (Terminology and Standardization Directorate). Furthermore, initialisms representing the names of administrative units and organizations usually take the definite article, whereas those representing a substance, method or object do not (e.g., The RCMP is under investigation). Initialisms also include initials such as those in O. J. SimpsonHW (spacing required in conjunction with names). Periods (but no space) are required in initials of 3 letters or more: W.A.C. Bennett, P.G.T. Beauregard.

Note, however, the growing practice of omitting spaces between individual initials, e.g., C.D. Howe, J.P. Getty, despite MW advice to the contrary. Note also that GR does not recommend the use of spaces between initials at all. If a person is identified by initials rather than by a full name, the trend is to put no periods between the initials, e.g., PET (Pierre Elliot Trudeau).

To form the plural of initialisms, simply add a lowercase "s", e.g., ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), RRSPs (registered retirement savings plans). Add an apostrophe only where a lone "s" might lead to confusion, e.g., TA’s (teaching asistants), POW’s (prisoners of war), c.o.d. (cash on delivery)’s (cash on delivery). To form the plural of abbreviations other than initialisms and units of measure, simply add a lowercase "s", e.g., bldgs., Bros., figs., nos., vols. Exceptions: SS. (saints), pp. (pages).


In the world of computers and the Internet, unpunctuated acronyms and initialisms are appearing in greater frequency without intervening spaces: ASCII, BASIC, BTW (by the way), CD-ROM, DOS, FYI (for your information), LAN, WWW, etc.

Call letters

The call letters of radio and television stations require uppercase letters, but no spacing between letters, e.g., ABC, BBC, CBC-FM, CBS, CHOM-FM, CITY-TV-Channel 15, CTV, NBC, PBS, WBZ-TV, YTV, etc. Exception to the all-caps rule are radio stations attributed with an epithet, e.g., The Bear, Magic 100, Mix 96, etc.

City codes

Certain large cities or segments of large cities with compound names are often informally abbreviated by travel industry specialists (2- or 3-letter city codes) and local residents in fax or e-mail transmissions for the sake of brevity: BA (Buenos Aires), KC (Kansas City), KL (Kuala Lumpur), LA/LAX (Los Angeles), MTL (Montréal), SFO (San Francisco), NDG (Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, part of Greater Montréal), TMR (Town of Mount Royal, also part of Greater Montréal). Note that GA (The Gazette Style) prefers the punctuated form for parts of Montréal. Also, as a general rule in formal prose, do not abbreviate the names of countries, provinces, states, cities or streets in a running text.

Compass directions (or points) (N, S, E, W)

Canada Post Corporation does not advocate the use of periods or any punctuation whatsoever on envelopes, parcels and labels. According to AP and AZ (A to Z Business Office Handbook), periods are required for compass points (N. S. E. W. etc.) used to indicate directional ends of a street or city divisions (quadrants) in a numbered address. The compass point may be placed either before the street name or after it, e.g., 555 East 5th Avenue, 56-5678 Pine St. N. However, AZ (A to Z Business Office Handbook), CA (The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing) and GR all recommend that compass points not be abbreviated if they precede a street name, e.g., 75 East 14th Street (not 75 E 14th Street). In addition, CA (The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing), GR and MW recommend that periods should not be used after compass points that follow a street address, (e.g., 75 Booth St. NCA (The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing), 75 - 6thAve. SW). If the compass point represents a quadrant of a city and it follows the street name, the abbreviation may be used without the terminating period or full stop, (e.g., NW TorontoCA (The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing)).

Courtesy and personal titles

Courtesy titles that are abbreviated, such as Amb. (ambassador), Dr., Esq. (esquire), Gov., Hon., Jr., Mr., Mrs., Ms., Messr. (plural of Mr.), Prof., Rev (Reverend)., or Sen. (senator), Sr.—with the exception of Miss—require a terminating period in American usage. Some British and Canadian usages still prefer the omission of the period. CA (The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing) recommends the use of periods. When a civil or military title is used with the last name alone, write the title out, e.g., General Boyle not Gen. Boyle. Also, if the title Hon. is preceded by the definite article, write the title out. MW tolerates the abbreviation even with the definite article.

Note the absence of an abbreviation for Miss(es), hence no terminating period. Also note the plural form for Mr. (Messrs.), Mrs. (Mmes.), Ms. (Mses. or Mss.).


Days should only be abbreviated (with terminating period) in business forms, tables, charts and calendars:

  • Sun.
  • Mon.
  • Tues.
  • Wed.
  • Thurs.
  • Fri.
  • Sat.

Latin abbreviations

Still commonly seen in footnote material, Latin abbreviations require periods in the appropriate places:

  • ad val.
  • cf.
  • e.g.
  • et al.
  • etc.
  • ibid.
  • i.e. (That Is)
  • n.b.
  • op. cit.
  • q.v.
  • viz.
  • vs. (or v.)Footnote 3

But no periods for the following:

  • ad hoc
  • ergo
  • idem
  • re
  • sic

Metric measurements

Metric measurements, chemical symbols and mathematical abbreviations (mm, kg, NaCl, tan) NEVER take a period; all other non-metric/SI measurements (ft., yd., oz., bd. ft., lb., min.) may take a period, depending on editorial style. According to ST, "at." (atomic) and "in." (inches) should take a terminating period to prevent confusion with the prepositions. Single-letter symbols, such as, t. (temperature), should be punctuated in typeset matter, but may be left unpunctuated in tables and illustrations. The trend today is to omit the period, even for non-metric units of measure, for example, sq ft. There is no difference in form between the singular and plural forms for either metric/SI and non-metric/SI units of measure: 1 yd, 2 yd, 1 km, 2 km, a 100-km hike. Exception: Btu’sAZ (A to Z Business Office Handbook) (blend of upper- and lower-case letters). Unlike other units of measure, temperature expressions do not require spaces between the number, degree symbol, or letter abbreviation, e.g., 32°C, 32°F.

Military ranks

According to GM and WT, police and military ranks, when shortened, require a period for reasons of editorial style. Note, however, that the Department of National Defence (DND) of Canada does not advocate the use of periods. Upon consulting the new edition of CA (The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing), one will find that DND also has its own set of abbreviations that may not be suitable in standard prose. Upon consulting NY, one will also notice that compound ranks are not hyphened, e.g., Sgt. Maj. Moreover, depending on the source, the very same denomination may have a different abbreviation. Compare PteCA (The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing) and Pvt.NY WT (private). For other details, consult CA (The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing).


May, June, July are not to be abbreviated. Otherwise use the following abbreviations:

  • Jan.
  • Feb.
  • Mar.
  • Apr.
  • Aug.
  • Sept.
  • Oct.
  • Nov.
  • Dec.

Note also that military datelines require no periods, e.g., 1 Nov 1997.

In tables where space restrictions prevent the use of longer abbreviations, use the following (no terminating periods):

  • Ja
  • F (February)
  • Mr
  • Ap
  • My
  • Je
  • Jl
  • Ag
  • S (September)
  • O
  • N (November)
  • D

Provinces and Territories

Two-character codes are used on packages and envelopes to facilitate processing by computerized postal systems. They are also the preferred form in the Internet:

  • AB
  • BC
  • MB
  • NB
  • NF
  • NT
  • NS
  • [NU]
  • ON
  • PE
  • QC
  • SK
  • YT
  • LB (Labrador)

Otherwise, use the following:

  • Alta.
  • B.C.
  • Man.
  • N.B.
  • Nfld.
  • N.W.T.
  • N.S.
  • Ont.
  • P.E.I.
  • Que.
  • Sask.
  • Y.T.
  • Lab.

Note the absence of spacing before periods following the capital letters. As an exception, GM recommends PEI without periods.


The following abbreviations are used with postal code addresses, with the exception of Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Ohio, and Utah, for which there are no official abbreviations. Notice the lack of uniformity in the length of abbreviations:

  • Ala.
  • Ariz.
  • Ark.
  • Calif.
  • Colo.
  • Conn.
  • D.C.
  • Del.
  • Fla.
  • Ga.
  • Ill.
  • Ind.
  • Kan.
  • Ky.
  • La.
  • Mass.
  • Md.
  • Me.
  • Mich.
  • Minn.
  • Miss.
  • Mo.
  • Mont.
  • N.C.
  • N.D.
  • Neb.
  • Nev.
  • N.H.
  • N.J.
  • N.M.
  • N.Y.
  • Okla.
  • Ore.
  • Pa.
  • R.I.
  • S.C.
  • S.D.
  • Tenn.
  • Tex.
  • Va.
  • Vt.
  • W.Va.
  • Wash.
  • Wis.
  • Wyo.

Use the following list of two-character codes on envelopes, packages and in Internet/e-mail correspondence:

  • AL (Alabama)
  • AK (Alaska)
  • AR (Arkansas)
  • AZ (Arizona)
  • CA (California)
  • CO (Colorado)
  • CT (Connecticut)
  • DC (District of Columbia)
  • DE (Delaware)
  • FL (Florida)
  • GA (Georgia)
  • HI (Hawaii)
  • IA (Iowa)
  • ID (Idaho)
  • IL (Illinois)
  • IN (Indiana)
  • KS (Kansas)
  • KY (Kentucky)
  • LA (Louisiana)
  • MA (Massachusetts)
  • MD (Maryland)
  • ME (Maine)
  • MI (Michigan)
  • MN (Minnesota)
  • MO (Missouri)
  • MS (Mississippi)
  • MT (Montana)
  • NC (North Carolina)
  • ND (North Dakota)
  • NE (Nebraska)
  • NH (New Hampshire)
  • NJ New Jersey (New Jersey)
  • NM (New Mexico)
  • NV (Nevada)
  • NY New York (New York)
  • OH (Ohio)
  • OK (Oklahoma)
  • OR (Oregon)
  • PA (Pennsylvania)
  • RI (Rhode Island)
  • SC (South Carolina)
  • SD (South Dakota)
  • TN (Tennessee)
  • TX (Texas)
  • UT (Utah)
  • VA(Virginia)
  • VT (Vermont)
  • WA (Washington)
  • WI (Wisconsin)
  • WV (West Virginia)
  • WY (Wyoming)

More difficult-to-find advice on the treatment of abbreviations and codes will appear in future issues of Terminology Update.


  1. AP The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual: Including Guidelines on Photo Caption, Filing the Wire, Proofreaders’ Marks, Copyright, Norm Goldstein, editor, Reading, Mass., Addison-Wesley, 1992.
  2. Attal, Jean-Pierre. Grammaire et usage de l’anglais, Paris, Duculot, 1987.
  3. Beer, David and McMurrey, David. A Guide to Writing as an Engineer, New York, Wiley, 1997.
  4. AZ (A to Z Business Office Handbook) Swindle, Robert E. and Swindle, Elizabeth M. A to Z Business Office Handbook, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1984.
  5. CA (The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing) The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing, Rev (Revised). and expanded, Toronto, Dundurn Press, 1997.
  6. Caps and Spelling. Rev (Revised)., Toronto, Canadian Press, 1981.
  7. CG Quirk, Randolph, et al. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, London, Longman, 1991, 1985.
  8. CP (Stylebook: A Guide for Writers and Editors) CP Stylebook: A Guide for Writers and Editors, Peter Buckley, editor, Extensively rev (Revised). 1992, Toronto, Canadian Press, 1992.
  9. De Sola, Ralph. Abbreviations Dictionary, Expanded international 7th ed., New York, Elsevier, 1986.
  10. CS The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th ed., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  11. EC (Editing Canadian English) Burton, Lydia, et al. Editing Canadian English, Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre, 1987.
  12. Canada’s Postal Code Directory = Répertoire des codes postaux au Canada, Ottawa, Canada Post Corporation = Société canadienne des postes, 1987-.
  13. The Canadian Addressing Standard Handbook: Delivery Needs Accuracy, Ottawa, Canada Post Corporation, 1995.
  14. FM The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, first edited by H.W. Fowler, 3rd ed., edited by R.W. Burchfield, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996.
  15. GA (The Gazette Style) Gelmon, Joseph N. The Gazette Style, Rev. ed., Montreal, The Gazette, 1995.
  16. GC Gage Canadian Dictionary, Rev. ed., Toronto, Gage Educational, 1997. (Dictionary of Canadian English)
  17. GM McFarlane, J.A. and Clements, Warren. The Globe and Mail Style Book, Rev. ed., Toronto, Globe & Mail, 1993.
  18. GR Sabin, William, et al. The Gregg Reference Manual, 4th Canadian ed., Toronto, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1995.
  19. GU Tricoit, Christiane. Guide de l’anglais moderne écrit (G.A.M.E.), Paris, Coforma, éd. François-Robert, 1990, 1989.
  20. United Nations. Documentation, Reference and Terminology Section. Currency Units = Unités monétaires = Unidades monetarias, New York, The Section, 1991. (Terminology Bulletin, no. 343).
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  22. MW Merriam-Webster’s Secretarial Handbook, 3rd ed., Springfield, Mass., Merriam-Webster, 1993.
  23. NY The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: A Desk Book of Guidelines for Writers and Editors, revised and edited by Lewis Jordan, New and enl. ed., New York, Quadrangle/New York Times Book, 1976.
  24. OA The Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations, Oxford, Clarendon Press; New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.
  25. PR Harris, Muriel. Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage, 2nd ed., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice Hall
  26. RH Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Stuart Berg Flexner, editor in chief, 2nd ed., New York, Random House, 1993.
  27. ST Science and Technical Writing: A Manual of Style, Philip Rubens, general editor, 1st ed., New York, H. Holt, 1992.
  28. Sigles en usage au Québec, réalisé par la Bibliothèque de l’Assemblée nationale, éd., rev. et augm., Québec, Assemblée nationale, Direction de la bibliothèque, 1990.
  29. WT Skillin, Marjorie E., et al. Words into Type, 3rd ed., completely rev (Revised)., Englewood Cliffs,
  30. Soukhanov, Anne H. Word Watch: The Stories Behind the Words of our Lives, 1sted., New York, H. Hold, 1995.

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