In our Twitter- and texting-mad modern world, it seems we’re all into shortening… our words, that is. We have neither space (Twitter) nor time (texting) to spell anything out. R U w/me so far?
Fortunately, those of us who still write for pay, realize that complete words still have value in other literary and journalistic venues. But how many of us really know the rules about shortening words? Do you know when and how to do it so that it gets past your copyeditor? Can you explain the difference among (ahem, not between…) abbreviations, contractions, acronyms, initialisms, and mnemonics?
Let me don my editor’s hat for a moment and lay out a few of the basics.
Abbreviations: These are words that have had some letters removed, usually from the end, but also from the middle—usually in multiple places. The defining characteristic in American English is a period at the end, such as Mr., Mrs., Ave., Inc., and so on. (In British usage the period—or “full stop”—is omitted from forms of address.)
Contractions: These are words (or phrases) that have had one or more letters removed from the middle and use an apostrophe to indicate the ellipsis. Negated verbs (don’t, can’t, won’t) and interrogatory phrases (what’s, who’s, where’s) are the most common, along with conjugations of the verb “to be” (I’m, you’re, it’s) and the verb “to have” (I’ve, she’s, they’ve).
Acronyms: These are the collections of letters that the government—particularly the military—is famous for. They are formed by using only the first (except in rare cases) letters of the words of a name or phrase to form a new word. Examples include DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), and SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics). When these terms refer to proper names, such as the agencies and programs just listed, the letters remain capitalized.
However, when the terms represent the shortening of a phrase, they usually lose their capitalization once they’ve become part of the common lexicon. Compare: radar (radio detecting and ranging), sonar (sound navigation and ranging), and lidar (light detection and ranging). The last of these is sometimes still capitalized because the technology is newer and much less familiar to readers than the other two; however, most editors prefer to treat all similar terms in the same way. Because these examples no longer use capitalization, they are no longer considered true acronyms.
Initialisms: These rarely mentioned terms are often mistaken for acronyms because they are formed in the same manner. What differentiates them is that acronyms are pronounceable as words, whereas initialisms are not. Common initialisms are often the names of companies: IBM, GE, MJB, and so on. When reading these, no one attempts to say “ibbem,”gee,” or “mijib.” Government departments are also a source of many initialisms: DOJ, USDA, DHS, USAF, and so on. (Note that HUD and ICE, however, are acronyms.) The Internet has produced a lot more initialisms: LOL, WTF, BTW; but these have generally not been accepted yet into the literary lexicon.
Mnemonics: These creatures are rarely talked about outside of sci-fi, industry, and technology (anybody remember the movie Johnny Mnemonic?), but they are all around us nonetheless. These are alpha or alphanumeric combinations that stand in as symbols or codes for something else. The most common of these come to us from the USPS (<– no, that’s an initialism for the postal service, not a mnemonic); they are of course, the state codes used in mailing: CA, OR, DC, TX, and so on.
At first glance, you might think CA or OR were abbreviations. But what’s missing? Right: the period! The capitalization might lead you to believe they were acronyms, or at least initialisms. But the letters “C” and “A” don’t stand for words beginning with those letters. “DC,” of course, could be considered an initialism, but it’s inclusion in a catalogue of over fifty mnemonics used for the same purpose, clearly establishes its mnemonic credentials in this case.
Another set of well-known—if not memorized—mnemonics are those on the Periodic Table of Elements: He for helium; O for oxygen; C for carbon; and so on. These examples might be mistaken for mere abbreviations—after all, the “e” in “He” isn’t capitalized—but consider also: Pb for lead; Au for gold; and Na for sodium. Mnemonics all.
Monikers: These letters, or letters and numbers, are usually brand names and have no underlying meaning or expression. They include (Mazda) RX7, (Jaguar) XKE, and (Windows) XP or ME. (Yes, the Windows nomenclature once stood for something, but how many people can tell you what?)
Symbols: Lastly, there are symbols, or “special characters.” These are the non-alpha, non-numeric characters that can be typed from your keyboard. The most common of these stand for words: & for and; @ for at; and = for equals or is.
So, as a writer, why do you need to know all this? Because the editorial rules for the use of each of these types of shortening differ from one another.
In short, abbreviations should not be used in prose (that is, in running text) with the exceptions of forms of address (Mr., Mrs., Dr., Sgt., for example). Don’t use etc., i.e., e.g., or misc. These are acceptable, however, in accessory text, such as tables, calendars, sidebars, and so on.) Journalists will be governed, of course, by the style guides of the entities they write for; the AP style, for instance, allows state names to be abbreviated (Calif., Ore., Tex.). (Note that these are not the postal mnemonics that supplanted the abbreviations in the 1970s.) To my mind, these are ugly artifacts from an earlier era that should, at the very least, be replaced with the much more familiar mnemonics, which require no period before a comma.
Contractions may be used in prose, but the choice to do so or not will have an impact on the work. In essays and narration, the use of contractions tends to make the writing more informal, which may not be what the writer intends. The converse is true in dialogue. To sound natural, a character’s speech should usually employ contractions unless, of course, the character speaking is intended to sound more formal. Consider: “That behavior will not be tolerated here, Mr. Weasley!” Obviously the speech of a schoolmarm. Versus: “She won’t let us.” No kid would say to another, “She will not let us.”
Acronyms and initialisms may be used in prose; however, in journalism, most style guides require that the full expression be written out on the first use, followed by the acronym in parentheses. In our modern world of abundant, familiar acronyms, I find even this to be problematic, as the acronym is often more familiar than that which it stands for. More people respond, for instance, to IBM than to International Business Machines. For the writer of prose, therefore, it’s advisable to provide a context for the acronym that clearly identifies its meaning. For example, in my work in progress, Senseless, one character mentions “Oregon DHS.” A second character immediately questions the meaning, giving the first character reason to explain, “the Department of Human Services.” This allows natural exposition, without the unwieldy and unnatural use of the full name on the first use.
Mnemonics are a mixed bag. Since state names underlie the commonly understood postal mnemonics, the former should be used in prose, even if you’re describing an address (in running text). Likewise, the names of the elements should be written out, unless the mnemonics themselves have a role in the story. Other uses of mnemonics may be allowed, but only if they are better understood than that for which they stand (such as, AB-normal, from Young Frankenstein, referring to blood type); or, if they play an integral roll in the story (such as 007 for James Bond).
Monikers are unavoidable, if a writer needs to refer to a specific product by name. But their use should be minimized, if possible, because they are distracting and cumbersome.
Like abbreviations, symbols should never be used in running text (except when part of a trademarked name, such as S&P 500), but they are permissible as spacesavers in accessory text, just as abbreviations are.
And there you have it! Keep in mind that style guides differ on their preferences for some of these usages, but these are, by and large, the guidelines that the majority of editors follow when marking up prose.