Don’t Use Abbreviations in Formal Writing!

With services like Twitter giving you a strict character count, and the rise of texting and other quick forms of electronic writing, it becomes easy to feel that abbreviations are a standard part of writing.  While that is true in casual writing, in formal writing, you want to avoid abbreviations and spell out the full expressions.  That’s considered the standard in essentially every style guide out there.

However, it’s something that I see a lot when I’m editing people’s works.  People type Mon. instead of Monday, chap. Instead of chapter and & instead of “and”.

It’s an easy enough habit to get into—I know I find myself using abbreviations constantly while trying to squeeze everything onto my twitter or making a quick text to meet up with friends.  If what you’re writing is intended to be casual, then abbreviating is fine.  In essays or papers, though, it comes across as lazy and sloppy, as if you didn’t care what you’re writing about.  That may or may not be true, but that’s certainly not the impression you want to give to the person grading your essay!

Now, there are some abbreviations which are exceptions to the general ban; they’re considered OK to use in formal writing.  Common titles—like doctor, missus or mister—are usually written as Dr., Ms. or Mr. in essays.  Similarly, abbreviations for time (a.m. and p.m.) or date (a.d., b.c., a.c.e or b.c.e) are generally considered acceptable as well.

There are also some abbreviations which you’re far more likely to see in academic writing than in casual writing:

  • “e.g.” means “for example”; you can use it as “I like sweet foods (e.g., candy)”.
  • “i.e.” means “in other words”; you can use it as “The summers in Chicago are not comfortable (i.e., they’re very hot and humid)”
  • “et al.” means “and other people”; you can use it when you don’t want to give a complete list, like “All of Winnie the Pooh’s friends were there—Eeyore, Tigger et al.”

All three come from Latin terms, and it would be considered a little pretentious to type out the full versions, so those abbreviations have been accepted by academics.

It’s also acceptable to use acronyms or initialisms in a paper, but only after you’ve used the full phrase once.  For example, you should use “United States” the first time you mention it in a paper, but then you can use US the next time you mention it.  You can occasionally get away with using acronyms for the beginning if the acronym is more common than the full version—for example, DNA instead of deoxyribonucleic acid—but, in general, you should spell things out the first time and only then use the acronym.

While it’s tempting to use abbreviations to save time and space, it’s considered poor form in your formal writing, and you should avoid it.


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