Monday, July 27, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: Abbreviations

Blacklisted by some traditionalists alongside the dreaded end-of-sentence preposition, using abbreviations--especially in formal texts--is often dismissed as a sign of incompetent writing. On the contrary, the entirety of Chapter 15 in The Chicago Manual of Style is dedicated to the complexity and usefulness of abbreviations. Certainly, excessive use will bury the meaning and distract the reader but purposeful abbreviations (and the rules that govern them) offer an equally succinct and expedient means of communicating without compromising readability.

The nature of an abbreviation will indicate how to space, punctuate, write as plural forms and whether to spell out the first appearance. There are many types: the acronym, "terms based on the initial letters of their various elements and read as a single word" {NATO, AIDS}; the initialism, "terms read as a series of letters {BBC, ATM}; the contraction: "includes the first and last letters of the full word" {Mr., amt.}; symbols {$, &} and lower-case shortened forms,{Latin terminology such as ibid., and others like vol., prof.}.

Use abbreviations wisely; if strong whole words can be used, by all means do so but recognize that abbreviations give the lay-reader a handle on specialized material and provide more concise reading for the specialist.

For much more information, in addition to Chicago, consult The Copyeditor's Handbook. Despite Chicago's seemingly exhaustive list, the editors contend that "the abbreviations listed are unavoidably incomplete" and refer readers to the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Abbreviations Dictionary, and the Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations Dictionary.

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