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The Oxford Companion to the English Language
Tom McArthurTom McArthur, Jacqueline Lam-McArthurJacqueline Lam-McArthur, Lise FontaineLise Fontaine


A word formation process involving the shortening of words and phrases in a variety of ways, such as in RADAR for Radio Detection and Ranging or MA for Master of Arts. Abbreviations involve the loss of content where only part of the word or phrase is maintained, for example a letter or a syllable. With abbreviations, orthography has a significant role (e.g. kg for kilogram). The two main types of abbreviation are initialism (composed of initial letters where each letter is pronounced individually, such as FBI for Federal Bureau of Investigation) and acronym (where the letters in the abbreviated form are pronounced using English reading rules, such as RADAR). Abbreviation as a process is related to other types of shortening processes such as cipping (or truncation), e.g. lab for laboratory, and blends e.g. motel, a blend of motor and hotel.


Abbreviations have likely been used since writing systems were invented, although there is no reason to think that they are a late development or dependent on writing systems. Early examples of abbreviations in English can be found in Beowulf. Abbreviations were commonly used on coins and inscriptions for practical reasons of space, time, and cost.

The use of abbreviation in English was prevalent in the practices of medieval scribes, among whom short forms were mnemonic and a means of economizing on parchment, effort, and time. However more generally, the use of abbreviations is highly productive in English, especially in COMPUTER-MEDIATED COMMUNICATION contexts such as chat messaging, for example LOL (laughing out loud), brb (be right back), OMG (oh my god), and WTF (what the fuck).


Although abbreviations usually need to be concise, convenient, and easy to remember, they do not need to be fully understood to serve their purpose. People can successfully use forms such as e.g. whether or not they know the full Latin form exempli gratia (for the sake of example). The more familiar and successful the short form, the less need for the full form, which may in course of time be forgotten. The full form of radar (radio detection and ranging) no longer has any functional value for most speakers and many are entirely unaware that these words are (or were) abbreviations. The members of organizations usually have little difficulty with the abbreviations they use, because of sheer familiarity, but people who are not part of the in-group may regard their use as (sometimes frustrating and provocative) jargon.


There are six conventions for writing and printing abbreviations:

  1. (1) Capital letters and points: I.N.S.E.A. for ‘International Society for Education through Art’.

  2. (2) Capital letters without points: BBC for ‘British Broadcasting Corporation’; NATO for ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organization’.

  3. (3) Lower-case letters with points for formulas such as e.g. and q.v., and without points for items that have become everyday words, such as laser, radar.

  4. (4) Mixed capitals and lower case, without points, capitals usually for lexical words, lower case for grammatical words: DoWLT for ‘Dictionary of World Literary Terms’; MoMA for ‘Museum of Modern Art’; mRNA for ‘messenger ribonucleic acid’; WiB the organization ‘Women in Business’.

  5. (5) Internal capitals, as in DigiPulse for ‘Digital Pulse’.

  6. (6) Hybrid forms: B.Com. for ‘Bachelor of Commerce’.

Symbolic abbreviations

Abbreviations that serve as symbols are usually pronounced as letter sequences or as their full originating words, as with c.c. (‘cee-cee’, ‘cubic centimetres’). In some instances, where abbreviations start with a vowel, the use of a or an indicates whether a writer is thinking of them as letters or words: a MP ‘a Member of Parliament’; an MP ‘an em-pee’.

Abbreviation variations and hybrids

  1. (1) Some abbreviations work as initialisms and acronyms: VAT (Value Added Tax) is referred to as both ‘vat’ and ‘vee-ay-tee’.

  2. (2) Some forms look like acronyms but behave as initialisms: WHO (World Health Organization) is ‘double-you-aitch-oh’, not ‘hoo’; POW (prisoner of war) is ‘pee-oh-double-you’, not ‘pow’.

  3. (3) Hybrid abbreviation: VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) is pronounced  ‘vee-tall’ ; CD-ROM (compact disc read-only memory) is ‘cee-dee-rom’.

  4. (4) Combinations of letter groups and clippings: ARPAnet (Advanced Research Projects Agency computer network); Brexit (British exit).

  5. (5) Combination of initialism and blend: email (electronic mail > e-mail > email).

Occurrence in texts

When abbreviations are familiar, they are used without explanation but, because they cannot always be presented without a gloss, there are at least six ways of bringing them into a text:

  1. (1) Indirect association.

    Whether you live in Illinois or not, this battle is relevant to you. In Illinois, they’ve been successful in having the affiliate nexus law declared unconstitutional, but the state has filed an appeal—although the Performance Marketing Association strongly feels their case is weak. This fight isn’t free. Last year the PMA raised and spent over $340,000 to defend our industry. (22 March 2013

  2. (2) Full form, bracketed abbreviation.

    HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has had the power to impose penalties of up to 200% of the money owed since last year and previously it was still as much as 100%. (The Guardian, 6 Jan. 2017)

  3. (3) Abbreviation, bracketed full form.

    The Property Ombudsman (TPO) scheme has been providing consumers and property agents with an alternative dispute resolution service for 25 years. (, accessed 27 Feb. 2017)

  4. (4) Using ‘(stands) for’ or ‘an acronym for’.

    By now you certainly have heard of the buzzword, STEM. What is it? Where did it come from? What does it mean? Well, to put it simply, S.T.E.M. stands for Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics; and STEM education refers to the academic studies surrounding these 4 subject areas. (Nov. 2016, Cynthia Sharpe,

  5. (5) Using ‘or’.

    Scanbot is an app that’s free on the App Store, but to take advantage of all of the features you’ll need to fork out over $5.99 for the in-app purchase that adds OCR, or optical character recognition, support. (26 Feb. 2017, Chance Miller,

  6. (6) Using ‘as it is known’.

    In the wake of the credit crunch and the ‘global financial crisis’ (or GFC as it is known to its friends), mutuality seems to be making a comeback. (12 March 2013,

Ad hoc usage

The use of abbreviations has long been part of note-taking, file-making, cataloguing, and the making of inventories. In such activities, short forms are often created for ad hoc purposes, used for a time, then dispensed with and forgotten. In such restricted systems, LA may mean not Los Angeles but late arrivals. Ad hoc abbreviation is a major feature of computer use, especially in the creation of filenames: for example, Vocab-doc ‘Vocabulary document’.

Special effects

Abbreviations may be ironic, humorous, or whimsical: for example, the rail link between the town of Bedford and the London station of St Pancras is locally known as the Bedpan Line. Comments on life may be telescoped into such sardonic packages as: BOGSAT a Bunch Of Guys Sitting Around a Table (making decisions about other people); TGIF Thank God It’s Friday (after a particularly hard working week). In addition, some institutionalized abbreviations have more than one interpretation. This double meaning may be intentional, as with ATI, whose primary meaning is American Tours International and secondary sense, as a kind of business motto, is Attitude, Teamwork, Initiative. More commonly, however, secondary meanings are ironic: for example, in the British honours system, the form CMG (Commander of St Michael and St George) is often glossed as Call Me God. See word formation.