Punctuating Abbreviations: The Use of Full Stops in Academic Writing
Abbreviations of all kinds are a common feature of academic and scientific writing, and they have to be absolutely correct and consistent to be effective, yet deciding where full stops are needed in the various kinds of abbreviations can be tricky. The following rules might therefore prove helpful as you prepare your scholarly manuscripts for publication.
True abbreviations usually take one or more full stops to indicate the missing letters of the words concerned (as in Nov. and i.e., with the latter representing the Latin ‘id est,’ meaning ‘that is’). Contractions, on the other hand, do not use stops (Mr and Mrs). The principle is demonstrated by the abbreviation St: without a full stop it is generally a contraction and means Saint, but with a stop (St.) it is an abbreviation and means Street. Unfortunately, this pattern is not always predictable, and Ph.D. (along with other degree titles) can be written with or without the full stops (PhD being equally acceptable). In an unusual abbreviation such as c/o (for ‘care of’) the slash takes the place of the first full stop and the second stop is omitted.
Acronyms and initialisms usually do not take full stops (UNICEF and REM). They are more likely to use full stops when they are recorded in lowercase letters (m.p.h.), but even in lowercase letters they are often written without the stops (mph). If full stops are used, they should be added after all letters in an acronym or initialism, not just the last one (m.p.h., not mph.). Keep in mind that American English tends to use full stops more often than British English does, including in contractions (Mrs. and Mr.) and initialisms (U.S.A. and R.E.M.).
A single capital letter abbreviating a word is generally followed by a full stop (in the initials of personal names, for instance, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, but referencing systems do differ, so guidelines must always be checked). This is not the case with compass points (N, S, E and W), however, or when an entire name is abbreviated (as in JFK) or when the letter is actually a symbol (R or U in statistics, for example). Standard abbreviated forms for weights and measures usually do not take full stops (m, cm and kg).
When true abbreviations such as vol. and ch. are used as plurals with an ‘s’ at the end, they technically become contractions because each one includes the last letter of the plural form of the word. This means that a full stop is not strictly required, but one is generally used for consistency with the singular form (vols. and chs.). When an abbreviated form using a final full stop appears at the end of a sentence, no additional stop is necessary because the single stop also closes the sentence: ‘School starts at 8 a.m.’ is correct, but ‘School starts at 8 a.m..’ is not. If the abbreviation appears within parentheses, however, a final stop should follow the closing parenthesis, as it does at the end of the second sentence of this paragraph.
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