The Appropriate Use of Articles before Abbreviations in Academic Papers
Abbreviations are basic tools for most authors of scholarly prose and are used with considerable frequency in scientific writing. They can quickly and effectively communicate concepts that would take several words to write out in full, and they are particularly useful when space is limited, as it often is in tables and figures. Abbreviations can make your writing clearer, more concise and less awkward, but only if they are use carefully and accurately.
Careful and accurate use obviously includes choosing the correct forms for standard abbreviations and devising sensible forms for newly created abbreviations, ensuring that each nonstandard abbreviation is clearly defined when it is first introduced and then used consistently throughout a document. However, abbreviations also need to be integrated into grammatically correct sentences in order to communicate effectively and act as functional elements of formal scholarly prose. When misused, abbreviations can be more awkward than the most unwieldy specialised phrases, and they can also prove extremely confusing for readers.
Essential to the effective use of abbreviations are the articles placed immediately before them. The definite article ‘the’ rarely presents challenges before abbreviations, but it is sometimes forgotten, perhaps because it is considered part of an abbreviation when it is not, so it is important to include it whenever necessary. For instance, ‘When NASA launches take place’ is fine as is, but in the singular an article is required: ‘When the NASA launch takes place.’ It is helpful to remember that acronyms (which are read as words) tend not to require preceding articles at all except when they are used adjectivally – ‘the patient was diagnosed with AIDS,’ but ‘the AIDS patient’ – whereas initialisms (which are pronounced as individual letters) tend to use a preceding article (whether definite or indefinite), as in ‘a CD,’ ‘an NGO’ and ‘the EU.’
When an indefinite article is needed immediately before an abbreviation, the pronunciation of the abbreviation determines whether ‘a’ or ‘an’ should be used. ‘A’ is the correct choice before abbreviations beginning with a consonant sound, including a vowel pronounced as a ‘w’ or ‘y’ sound. Examples include ‘a PhD,’ ‘a NASA launch’ and ‘a UNICEF greeting card.’ When an abbreviation begins with a vowel sound, however, including a consonant pronounced with an initial vowel sound, ‘an’ should be used instead, as in ‘an APA style of referencing,’ ‘an IQ test’ and ‘an MP’s riding.’
The correct use of articles before abbreviations is not only an aspect of accomplished writing, but it is also essential to clear communication, with the abbreviation ‘MS’ providing a good example. As an initialism, MS means ‘multiple sclerosis’ and is read as individual letters, so it should be used with ‘an’ when an indefinite article is required (an MS patient). However, MS can also mean ‘manuscript’ (or, more accurately, the Latin manuscriptum) and is pronounced as a word when read aloud, so it should be preceded by ‘a’ when an indefinite article is needed (a MS study). Confusing the two abbreviations through the inappropriate use of articles (as in ‘a MS patient’) may provide your reader with a laugh, but that is only desirable if it is also intended.
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