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The Use of Acronyms in Academic Writing

Acronyms are often used in academic writing in order to avoid the repetitive use of long, cumbersome titles. Acronyms are defined as words formed by the first letters of words in a name or title. For example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is most often called NATO, and ASAP is often used in place of the phrase “as soon as possible.” Typically, acronyms do not involve the use of periods after each letter in the title; instead, the capitalized first letters of the words in the title appear together as one “word.”

When we choose to use acronyms within a written text, we must carefully consider what acronyms to use and how to define the acronym such that our readers will fully understand the reference. For example, you should generally stick to acronyms that are used within the field for which you are writing rather than creating new, unused acronyms. Also, in order to avoid confusion for your reader, you must find ways to define the acronyms that you use. This is important because acronyms can have multiple meanings. For example, NATO has also been used to represent North African Theater of Operations and National Association of Theatre Owners, Inc., among others. Moreover, ASAP has been used to represent Army Substance Abuse Program and Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel among others. Clearly, the use of acronyms without proper definition can create confusion for your reader.

Generally speaking, two approaches are used to properly define acronyms within a text. First for longer, stand-alone works, like a text book or a thesis, a list of definitions and acronyms used throughout the text is sometimes included near the beginning of the work (e.g., after the table of contents). However, in most shorter texts, a more direct method of defining acronyms is adopted. In the latter case, acronyms are usually defined at the first point of use in the text with a parenthetical reference after the full title. For example, in a paper that discusses the operations of NATO, the first time in which the acronym is used could perhaps be a sentence defining the entity. The following example shows how the acronym should be defined in this case: “The North American Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance of countries from North America and Europe who are committed to fulfilling the precepts of the North American Treaty.” Once an acronym is defined, it should be used for all subsequent references to that term throughout the document. Thus, in our example, North American Treaty Organization would be used only in the example sentence, and NATO would be used in every other reference to this organization.

One caveat to the parenthetical definition of acronyms is their use in abstracts. Keep in mind that since abstracts are treated as separate documents from the full manuscripts that they describe, all acronyms used in both the abstract and the manuscript must be defined in both documents.

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