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Part of: Grammar points

Abbreviations and acronyms

Last updated: 20 December, 2019

Following this helps people with:

  • time pressures: words make sense immediately

  • stress: not knowing what something means may increase stress

  • multi-tasking: with divided attention anything unclear will confuse

  • cognitive impairments: meaningful words require less mental effort

  • visual impairments: meaning given in context can reduce eye strain

Guidelines

Abbreviations and acronyms are generally not good for readability. If the short form is better known it may be OK. But it's dangerous to assume something is familiar. Test your content. 

Remember, language is organic. Some everyday words, like laser, come from acronyms.

1. Do not use points or spaces.

2. Write out "for example" and "that is" in full.

3. Test with users, find out how familiar they are with your abbreviation.

4. If an acronym is better understood than the full text, use that.

5. Use all capital letters for initialisms.

6. Start with a capital letter for acronyms.

7. Capitalise single letters in expressions.

8. Provide full text explanations.

9. Consider providing a full explanation each time.

Usability evidence


1. Do not use points or spaces.

This includes proper names.

Examples:

mph, 4am, WH Smith

2. Write out "for example" and "that is" in full.

Do not use "eg' and "ie".

Do not use "etc".

These are abbreviations of Latin terms. They are not readable and inclusive for all users.

3. Test with users, find out how familiar they are with your abbreviation.

An international audience may not know abbreviations that seem familiar to you.

Example:

VAT (value added tax)

It's a very commonly known to many people. But it may not be known to users new to the country or an international audience.

4. If an acronym is better understood than the full text, use that.

People will recognise and know the meaning of acronyms without necessarily knowing, or needing to know, what the letters stand for.

Examples:

GIF, MB, KB

You may need to include a brief description alongside your acronym. 

Example:

"the conservation charity RSPB" instead of "the RSPB"

5. Use all capital letters for initialisms.

If the individual letters are pronounced use capital letters.

Examples:

BBC, CEO, USA

6. Start with a capital letter for acronyms.

If the short form version is said aloud as one word.

Examples:

Nasa, Nato, Unicef

If the acronym has entered everyday language use all lower case letters.

Examples:

laser, radar

7. Capitalise single letters in expressions.

Examples:

C-list

F-word 

the word assassin has four Ss

8. Provide full text explanations.

If you use an abbreviation or acronym more than once, explain it in full at least on the first use. Generally write out in full and provide the short form version in brackets after. 

For well-known abbreviations and acronyms give the short form version followed by the full wording.

Examples:

Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo)

BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)

If an organisation is only mentioned once, you do not need to provide its acronym. But do if it's useful information for your reader. 

9. Consider providing a full explanation each time.

Writing out an acronym in full only on first use is a common style guide recommendation. But users may only read one section of your page and miss the full version.

If you can provide the full version as accessible hover text, do that. GOV.UK use a markdown function.


Usability evidence

'Alienating the Audience: How Abbreviations Hamper Scientific Communication', 2017

'Do acronyms belong in the medical literature?', 2016

Guardian and Observer style guide: A, 2015

Text Matters style guide

GOV.UK Style guide, UK government website

GOV.UK How to publish – Markdown – Acronyms, UK government website

'7 ways to get the acronyms and abbreviations out', 2017

'7 words you probably didn't know were acronyms', 2017


Relevant wiki content


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