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What is an Abbreviation?

Updated on May 16, 2010

An abbreviation is a letter or group of letters used in writing, printing, and speech to represent a word or phrase in shortened form to facilitate writing and to save space and time.

Abbreviations avoid the need to pronounce long words and phrases. Shortened forms of words have been used since ancient times, and many abbreviations now in use come from Latin.

Early examples of abbreviation have survived on coins and inscriptions, where lack of space made the shortening of words necessary. With the development of papyrus and, later, of parchment, writing increased and abbreviations were adopted by copyists to save labor.

In modern times the rapid growth of the sciences, technology, and business, and the increase of governmental agencies have produced a vastly increased vocabulary of abbreviations for use in specialized as well as general communication.

In mathematics and in sciences such as chemistry and physics, symbols are used that serve the same function as abbreviations and are understood in all countries.

Common Methods of Abbreviation

There is no overall rule governing the formation of abbreviations. Although some forms have become standard, there are many variations, especially in the use of periods and capitals. The following methods of abbreviation are most commonly used:

1. Initials. This form is used most often to shorten titles or long names. For example, a certified public accountant is often called a CPA; a Master of Arts degree is referred to as an MA. The names of coun tries and states are frequently abbreviated. The United States of America is known as the USA. Organizations also abbreviate their names. The American Fed eration of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations is known as the AFL-CIO.

Sometimes the initials of an organization's name form a word that is used instead of the full name. For example, UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization; NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Some organizations adopt names with an abbreviated form that indicates the nature of the organization. The name WAVES, for example, is formed from the initial letters of the Women's Appointed Volunteer Emergency Service. The organization is the Women's Reserve of the United States Naval Reserve.

Famous people are often popularly known by their initials. FDR is a common abbreviation for Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Lyndon B. Johnson is called LBJ.

2. First and last letters. Pennsylvania becomes Pa.; Doctor is Dr.; Mister is Mr.; versus is vs.

3. Key or identifying letters. Sergeant is Sgt; bldg. stands for building; mfr. is manufacturer.

4. Syllables. Professor is abbreviated to Prof.; Washington is Wash.

Most abbreviations are followed by periods, but in many forms, especially those consisting entirely of capital letters, such punctuation is often omitted.

Specialized lists of abbreviations are contained in the articles on academic degrees, metric system, and weights and measures. Symbols for chemical elements are included in the separate articles on individual elements. The following is a selected list of standard and alternate abbreviations.

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