There are different kinds of abbreviated word, some more likely in formal writing than others
THE PROBLEM OF ABBREVIATIONS IN FORMAL WRITING
Abbreviated words can be a problem in both reading and writing formal English. Readers may find some of them hard to understand, while writers have to know not just how to abbreviate, but also when and when not to do it.
This post aims to help out in all of these areas. It does not offer a comprehensive list of abbreviations in English, since those can be found in most good dictionaries and on many websites. Instead, it indicates which kinds of abbreviations are most possible in formal writing, and focuses on one kind – Latin abbreviations – which is particularly used there but can be quite difficult to understand or remember.
TYPES OF ABBREVIATIONS IN ENGLISH
An abbreviation is a word or phrase shortened by the removal of letters, for example pg. instead of page. It is not to be confused with abbreviation (uncountable), the procedure of shortening a word, phrase, sentence, paragraph or more by removing some of its parts (for more on this kind of countable/uncountable contrast, see 14. Action Outcomes). Abbreviations are also not the same as abbreviated sentences (see 158. Abbreviated Sentences).
The idea of “parts removal” makes it easy to distinguish abbreviations from symbols. Symbols can also be shortened written forms of words, but they are created by replacement of letters rather than their simple removal. Examples are $, @ and &. Symbols are found quite often in formal writing but are not the focus of this post.
Some abbreviations, called acronyms, are of multi-word names of people, organizations, countries or institutions, made with just the first letter of each word in the name. Capital letters are normally preferred and in modern usage there are no full stops. Examples are FDR (the 1940s American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt), BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), UAR (United Arab Emirates) and GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education – see 137. Words that Reflect English Culture). Such abbreviations are quite common and easy to handle in formal writing.
Another type of abbreviation is made by removing one or more syllables from a word, especially its end (syllables are defined in the post 125. Stress & Emphasis). Examples are admin(istration), advert(isement), exam(ination), (re)fridge(rator) and uni(versity). This kind of abbreviation is not often found in formal writing because it is usually very informal (though it may appear within graphics – see abbrev. in the table below). It becomes more acceptable only if, after time, it becomes the normal way of saying the word, in which case it ceases even to be thought of as an abbreviation. Words that have evolved like this include cab(riolet), lunch(eon), (omni)bus, rail(way) and perhaps (aero)plane.
Other abbreviations are made by removing most of a word or phrase, especially the vowels, and representing the rest normally in lower case letters with a full stop at the end. These are not common in formal writing, but there are some notable exceptions, including cm. and other measurements (“centimetre”), cp. (“compare”), ed. or eds. (“editor/s”), Mt. (“Mount”), pg. or p. (“page”), pto. (“please turn over”) and re. (“reference”).
We find ed. or eds. in bibliographies after editor names (see 81. Tricky Word Contrasts 2, #11), pg. or p. before page numbers in citations and bibliographies (see 76. Tenses of Citation Verbs), pto. at the bottom of pages in important documents like forms and exam papers, and re. at the start of some formal letters.
The other main type of abbreviation – the one that the rest of this post is about – is derived from words and phrases taken from another language, Latin.
ABBREVIATIONS DERIVED FROM LATIN
The Latin language is no longer spoken today, but it has had a major impact on English. The language as a whole is full of words derived from Latin (see 45. Latin Clues to English Spelling, 108. Formal and Informal Words, 146. Some Important Prefix Types and 172. Multi-Use Suffixes), while some special fields like law and philosophy sometimes use actual Latin expressions (e.g. de facto, a priori, inter alia). All types of academic writing use special abbreviations of Latin words. Here are the most common ones:
One common Latin abbreviation that is not greatly used in formal writing is NB (= Nota Bene = “This is important”). It is especially useful in note-making.
USING LATIN ABBREVIATIONS
The following are noteworthy points regarding the use of the the above-listed Latin abbreviations.
AD – commonly used after dates – is now rejected by some writers because they feel it could cause offence to readers who are not Christians. The problem is the fact that D stands for Domini, meaning “Lord”, a name for Christ that implies belief in him. The proposed alternative is CE (Christian Era).
ca. is especially common before numbers. In facilitating vagueness, it is a useful device for “hedging” (see 95. Hedging 1: Numbers & Generalizations).
e.g. and i.e. (or viz.) are both used, with a comma before and no comma after, to introduce detail. The former says that what follows is some of a previously-mentioned general class, while the latter say it is all. For example, after the general class main South American languages, one might say say e.g. Portuguese but i.e. (or viz.) Spanish & Portuguese. For more, see 48. Tricky Word Contrasts 1 and 54. Sentence Lists 1: Incidental.
etc. is similar to e.g. but must come after an incomplete list rather than before. It is especially useful when the list is introduced by a colon (see 1. Simple Example-Giving).
et al. is occasionally found in academic texts after the name of an author whose words are being quoted or paraphrased nearby. It can, in other words, be a part of abbreviated “references” (see 76. Tenses of Citation Verbs). However, it will not usually be repeated in the corresponding fuller reference in the bibliography at the end of the text. Its message is that at least two other authors collaborated with the one mentioned, the names of whom can be found in the bibliography.
ff. is sometimes written after a page number to show that the page in question is only the first of a sequence to consult.
ibid. and op cit. can both replace a standard abbreviated reference when it is the same as one mentioned earlier. The difference between them is perhaps one of distance from the earlier mention: ibid. after short distances with no other sources mentioned in between, op. cit. otherwise.
q.v. resembles cf.: both invite the reader to view an alternative text (see 128. Imperative Verbs in Formal Writing). However, q.v. follows the name of the text or its topic, while cf. precedes it. Moreover, the text or topic mentioned before q.v. is not likely to be in a different document.
(sic) is found inside quoted words. It emphasizes that the word before it is what the source text says, and not quoted inaccurately. In doing so, it suggests that the quoting writer thinks a different spelling or word would have been more appropriate. It aims, in effect, to shield the quoting writer from any criticism that the wording in question might incur.