Tips from the Editor – Abbreviation Clarification (Part 2)

Posted on

editor1aBy Kelly Laycock

As I mentioned in my previous post about abbreviations, conventions abound, and it is often confusing to know which style to use. I will take a look at the three big considerations: capitalization, pluralization and punctuation.

First of all, style is a choice not an inviolable rule (see my previous post). Every major style guide has made choices about their preferences, and we can trust those style choices because they are the result of years of experience in sorting out trends that work and trends that don’t. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. A style guide is a GUIDE for the most common occurrences, and you are free to disagree, but I suggest you have good reason for it. In this post, I’m going to use a few different sources for style and attempt to highlight the reasoning behind each. My examples will come from the American guide The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the British guide Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO), and the Government of Canada’s The Canadian Style (CS).   


Let’s start with some general guidelines about capitalization. Each of my three sources seem to agree on this point, although they each have their own way of discussing the differences between initialisms and acronyms. (Note: to better understand this distinction, check out this short video from Oxford Dictionaries before reading on.)

CMS states:

Initialisms tend to appear in all capital letters, even when they are not derived from proper nouns (HIV, VP, LCD). With frequent use, however, acronyms—especially those of five or more letters—will sometimes become lowercase (scuba); those that are derived from proper nouns retain an initial capital. Chicago generally prefers the all-capital form, unless the term is listed otherwise in Webster’s.

NAFTA (not Nafta)

ODO gives you the choice:

Most acronyms can be written as capital letters or with only an initial capital letter.

Aids >> acquired immune deficiency syndrome
SIM (card) >> subscriber identification module

Some acronyms are so established that they are now ‘normal’ words, generally used without conscious awareness of their original full form. These words should be written in lower-case letters. Examples include:

laser >> light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation
radar >> radio detection and ranging
scuba >> self-contained underwater breathing apparatus

And CS explains it in yet a different way:

Use upper-case letters for acronyms or initialisms in their entirety, even if some of the component words or their parts are not normally capitalized—unless the organization concerned prefers lower case:

CAA >> Canadian Automobile Association
Nabisco >> National Biscuit Company

All three guides agree that abbreviations for common nouns that are already lower case in their spelled-out form generally maintain lowercase status:

kilometre >> km
for example >> e.g.
et cetera >> etc.

Plurals or Plural’s?

Pluralizing abbreviations depends on the abbreviation. There are regular plurals (vol, vols) and irregulars (p, pp). When in doubt, check your chosen style guide. One thing to note is that an apostrophe is not used for plurals, only possessives:

His RRSPs were growing rapidly. (plural)
The RRSP’s interest rate was competitive. (possessive)

Punctuation. Full stop…or not?

The use of periods in abbreviations seems to be where my sources reveal the greatest differences of opinion, and exceptions abound. I suggest using caution: consistency will be our one and only guiding principle!

We’ve already established the use of capitals in acronyms and initialisms. All three of my sources tell us not to add periods for capitalized abbreviations. ODO does suggest that in American English, there are some particular abbreviations that use periods as an alternative, offering U.S.A. and U.S. as a popular examples. Although CS still insists on using more periods than fewer, they acknowledge a general trend in recent years toward the omission of periods in abbreviations of all kinds. They suggest that it started with scientific and technical writing, but it has started creeping into general writing.

Wikipedia suggests that “[m]inimization of punctuation in typewritten material became economically desirable in the 1960s and 1970s for the many users of carbon-film ribbons since a period or comma consumed the same length of non-reusable expensive ribbon as did a capital letter.” More recently, the influence of social media and the push for brevity has had a big impact on the trend. And I tend to agree with the elimination of periods in abbreviations. If the meaning is clear, then periods are superfluous.

So where do my three guides stand on this issue?

CMS says to use periods with abbreviations that end in a lowercase letter:

  • p. (page), vol., e.g., i.e., etc., a.k.a., a.m., p.m., Ms., Dr., et al. (et is not an abbreviation; al. is)

CS gets a little more specific. They suggest using periods:

  • with geographical abbreviations: B.C., P.E.I., but not for the two-character symbols recommended by Canada Post [BC, PE)
  • with most lower-case abbreviations: a.m., p.m., e.g., i.e. (mph is one of the few exceptions)
  • at the end of abbreviations for single words: Mr., Jr., Ltd., misc., pp., Nos.

But ODO says you don’t need to use a full stop if the abbreviation consists of the first and last letter (Mr, Ltd, Dr), but then their style becomes a little inconsistent. If an abbreviation only uses the first part of a word, then a period is needed for use in writing: (Wed., Jan. , etc.) but not for things like Brit (British person) or Jag (Jaguar). I can’t say I follow their reasoning here, although I do like their general move toward the omission of periods.

CMS and CS agree on one thing specifically:

  • Use periods for initials standing for given names: E. B. White; do not use periods for an entire name replaced by initials: JFK.

Notice they choose to put a space between the initials E. B. Not all style guides choose to do that; some prefer E.B. White, while others prefer EB White. Again, it comes down to choosing a style and being consistent with it.

Now, maybe we don’t even notice the difference between a.m. and p.m., am and pm, or AM and PM, because we are so used to seeing the variations in different reading materials. But when we see the British versions of Mr and Mrs without periods, I’m guessing your inner editor gets riled up! Of course there should be periods there! You can’t possibly let those abbreviations hang there like that, looking naked for all to see. Or maybe I’ve misjudged my audience entirely and the effect of texting has already infiltrated our perceptions so much that we are becoming more flexible in our preferences. If we are becoming used to seeing variation, the periods seem as unimportant as in the first example.

But in the Canadian legal world just a few short years ago, the shock of period deletion was taken to new levels with the publishing of the seventh edition of the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation (better known as the McGill Guide). In this 2010 edition, periods were systematically removed from almost every abbreviation, from the names of print reporters all the way to initialized author names.

The backlash was instant (see this SLAW article, for example), and emotions ran high. How could a respected guide take all conventions and throw them out the window? It brought to the surface the fluctuating tendencies of the use of periods in citations since the introduction of the neutral citation (which contains no periods), and pushed that trend to the extreme. If we didn’t need periods in the neutral cite, why did we need them in the secondary sources, or in the short title itself? Not to mention the difficulties in searching some of the new databases, where periods could mean the difference between finding 2 matches or 208 matches.

  • Gould Estate v. Stoddart Publishing Co. (1998), 39 O.R. (3d) 545 (C.A.)
  • Gould Estate v Stoddart Publishing Co (1998), 39 OR (3d) 545 (CA)

I’m quite used to no periods, and the first example looks outdated (and a little confusing) to me. But the decision about personal initials and common abbreviations (such as e.g. versus eg; E. B. White versus E.B. White, E B White or EB White) is still being debated. In my mind, context will always provide clarity (for example, ie and eg will continue to be followed by a comma and will likely appear in parentheses, and once our eyes are accustomed, the periods lose their meaning and become remnants of a previous style preference).

As an aside, when I took over the production of The Queen’s Bench Rules of Saskatchewan: Annotated for the new 4th edition, I was confronted with that same dilemma. With no other major citation guide to follow at the time, and without knowing the history of the conventions, I followed the 7th edition of the McGill Guide to a T. Readers may have noticed the removal of the period in the author’s name (Neva R McKeague). Discerning readers also may have noticed the removal of periods in common abbreviations such as for example (eg), that is (ie) and et cetera (etc). But what you probably didn’t notice was that by doing so, we saved a full 10 pages of space in a document of more than 1,000 pages by deleting all those periods. That is significant.

So where does this argument end? Well, I think it is true that there is a trend to eliminate periods from abbreviations across the board, and it is picking up speed. Perhaps the McGill guide was a bit ahead of its time, but I think overall it has helped us realize that where convention is concerned, we are adaptable.

So my final advice: Pick a style and stick to it. Watch the trends, and when a new convention comes around, keep your emotions in check. Above all, be consistent.



Government of Canada. The Canadian Style (Translation Bureau Online, March 6, 2015):

University of Chicago Press. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Oxford University Press. Initialisms (Oxford Dictionaries Online, March 6, 2015):

Wikipedia. Abbreviation (Online, March 6, 2015):

Tell us what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s