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Language Arts

Common Abbreviations



Abbreviations are shortened forms of words or phrases and have a variety of purposes. They are used to save space, as in the abbreviations of place names and to express affection, as with nicknames. They are also used to avoid endless, lengthy repetition when something has to be constantly referred to.
Common abbreviations are sometimes used to save time, as in the abbreviations used in emergency rooms and other medical settings. And they are used to make things less interruptive, as with Latin phrases commonly used in writing, or more memorable, as in the abbreviated names of organizations with lengthy titles. To learn more about abbreviations, keep reading.

Ways in Which Common Abbreviations Are Formed

Common abbreviations are formed in a variety of ways and may or may not use punctuation. When punctuation is used, most generally one finds periods used to separate elements of the abbreviation. Three of the most frequent ways of forming common abbreviations are clipping or shortening, initialism, and acronyms, although other approaches are possible.

The categories initialism and acronyms are differently understood by different people, so I will begin by defining both as I will use them. Initialism and acronyms are two ways of forming common abbreviations that use the first letters of a group of words. The difference is in how the resulting abbreviation is pronounced. In initialism, the resulting abbreviation is said as a letter string, whereas in an acronym, the letters are pronounced as if a word.

Clipping or Shortening to Form Common Abbreviations

This type of word change is called by a variety of names, including apocopation. Since apocopation has a completely different, and useful, meaning in the realm of rhyme, I’m going to stick to “clipping or shortening,” which clearly conveys that this type of abbreviation is made by using less than the entire word, some of which has been deleted.

Usually, clipping or shortening comes from taking off letters at the end of the word. This is common in high school and college courses and informal forms of words that are used frequently. Here are some examples from education:

  • math for mathematics (in British English, the abbreviation is maths, preserving the s at the end of the word and cutting out the middle)
  • bio for biology
  • gym for gymnasium
  • soc (pronounced /sohsh/) for social sciences or sociology
  • hum (pronounced /hyume/) for humanities

Examples from other areas include:

  • rhino for rhinoceros
  • gas for gasoline
  • Fred for Frederick
  • Sal for Sally

Clipping or shortening need not only take letters from the end of a word, as these examples demonstrate:

  • phone for telephone (end)
  • flu for influenza

Initialism to form Common Abbreviations

Here are some common abbreviations that are of the type called initialism:

  • US or U.S. for United States, an example of a country, and an example of the choice of using punctuation
  • YMCA for Young Men’s Christian Association, an example of an organization
  • ND or N.D. for North Dakota, an example of a state
  • RR for Rural Route, an example of a road
  • UCLA for University of California at Los Angeles, an example of an educational organization, as well as the choice not to include “little” words in the initials
  • m for meter, an example of a measurement and of a single word being abbreviated by a single letter

Acronyms to form Common Abbreviations

Here are some common abbreviations that are of the type called acronyms:

  • NASCAR for National Association of Sports Car Racing, an example of an organization
  • NASA for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, an example of a government agency
  • scuba for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, an example of a piece of equipment

Other Types of Common Abbreviations

This category covers a wide range of idiosyncratic ways of forming abbreviations. Examples include:

  • igg for ignore, where the spelling of the abbreviation differs
    from the spelling in the word itself because a letter has been added
  • Coke for Coca-Cola, where the spelling of the abbreviation differs from the
    spelling in the word itself because the letters C-o-c would suggest a different
    sound.
  • Tbsp. for tablespoon, where the abbreviation draws on letters that appear intermittently in the word.
  • Interpol for International Criminal Police Organization, where the abbreviation draws on syllables from two of the four words.
  • NAACP for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where each letter is pronounced as a letter, but the two A’s are rendered as “double A,” making it /EN duh buhl AY see PEE/.