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Category: abbreviations

That’s OK!

In a previous blog entry we looked at acronyms and initialisms. Probably the most common initialism is OK. Meaning acceptable, everything is in order, go ahead, I approve, etc., it is used in many languages.

Just as internet-savvy young people nowadays use fancy abbreviations such as 2Y2 (to you too), CU L8ER (see you later) and TNX (thanks), people in the 1830s also made up funny abbreviations, often based on intended misspellings. They could, for example, write KY for know yuse, meaning no use. All right was abbreviated OW (oll wright). OK was such a misspelling, supposed to mean oll korrect. It became popular when it first appeared in print in the Boston Morning Post in 1839.

In 1840, President Martin van Buren campaigned for reelection, and his supporters chose O.K. as the motto for the campaign. Van Buren’s nickname was Old Kinderhook, and supporters formed O.K. Clubs around the country. In the end, van Buren was not okayed by the voters; his opponent William Henry Harrison won the election.

OK became increasingly popular and is used all over the world in various versions such as okeh, okie, okej, okey, ookoo, owkej, hokay and others.

You can write OK in different ways, with and without full stops and in uppercase or lowercase letters. If you write for a journal, you should consult its style guide. OK is also written okay, and in student slang it became okey-dokey or okie-dokie.

Space people at NASA added a letter; AOK means All OK.

The initialism has its own sign: to signal OK, you form a circle with your thumb and first finger with the other fingers pointing upwards.

A hand showing the OK sign with thumb and index finger forming a circle and the other fingers pointing upwards.
That’s OK!

You should, however, be cautious about using this OK sign in certain countries, where it might be vulgar or offensive. In Brazil, for example, it is the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger (up yours!). The sign has also become linked to white supremacist groups in the USA.

There have been alternative suggestions about the origin of OK. One theory says that the abbreviation is from the Choctaw language (the Choctaws are a Native American people in the southeastern United States). An example of folk etymology is the belief that OK comes from the Scottish och aye, meaning oh yes. Another explanation points out that the letters OK were stamped on biscuits given to soldiers in the American Civil War. The biscuits came from Orrin Kendall’s bakery. But the most probable explanation is the one from the Boston Morning Post.

What is a backronym?

In an earlier blog post we looked at acronyms.

While an acronym is formed from a phrase, a backronym (or bacronym) is a word that is supposed to come from a phrase, but that phrase has been constructed (often humorously) to fit an existing word.

A well-known example of a backronym is posh, meaning stylish, elegant, upper-class. There is a popular belief that posh came from ’port out, starboard home’. It was thought that rich people would book two cabins on their voyage to India and back home, one on the port side of the ship and the other on the starboard. In that way they made sure that they could travel more comfortably, away from the heat of the sun. However, posh was quite simply a slang word in the late 1800s for an overdressed dandy. Another meaning of posh was a small coin, money. 

Starboard side of the deck of a passenger ship.
Port or starboard?

Another backronym is golf, which is – erroneously – said to come from gentlemen only, ladies forbidden. The word golf is considered to come from Middle Dutch cold, meaning stick or club.

A few more backronyms:

CopConstable on patrol
FordFix or repair daily
IBMIt's Better Manually
NavyNever again volunteer yourself
TipTo ensure promptness

A CAPTCHA is a distorted code you copy on a website to access a page. This is to prevent automated attacks on a website. The acronym is said to mean Completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart. However, I am not sure that the word is a true acronym. It was probably made in analogy with gotcha, ’I have got you’, meaning that you have caught somebody doing something wrong. A gotcha also means a sudden unexpected problem. The interesting thing is that there now is another way to prevent hackers from accessing a web page – and it is called GOTCHA, said to mean Generating panOptic Turing Tests to Tell Computers and Humans Apart. If you don’t know Alan Turing or the Turing Test, read here or here.

The Morse signal SOS is said to mean Save our Ship or Save our Souls. In fact, the alarm signal is …- – -… (three short, three long, three short without any pause), while the letters SOS in Morse code are three short, pause, three long, pause, three short.

Another distress signal is Mayday, mainly used by airplane or ship crews. It is used in voice communication via radio. In a life-threatening emergency the word is repeated three times. The word is said to have been created by Frederick Rockford, a radio officer at Croydon Airport in London in 1923. Mayday supposedly comes from the French m’aidez meaning ‘help me’ or venez m’aider meaning ‘come and help me’. So Mayday is not a backronym.

Neither is May Day, which is something completely different. It refers to the first of May (or the first Monday in May) being a festival in many countries to celebrate the arrival of spring.

Acronyms and initialisms

Acronyms are a type of abbreviation. They are formed by the first letter of each word in a phrase and usually, but not always, written in capital letters. An acronym is pronounced as a word:

ASAPAs soon as possible
HIRCHuman–industrial robot collaboration
NASDAQNational Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations
NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organization
PINPersonal identification number
POTUSPresident of the United States
SARSSevere acute respiratory syndrome
SWOTStrengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats
UNESCOUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
WADAWorld Anti-Doping Agency

Some words created as acronyms have become so common that people do not know they are acronyms. Some examples:

laserlight amplification by stimulated emission of radiation
radarradio detection and ranging
scubaself-contained underwater breathing apparatus
sonarsound navigation and ranging
taserThomas A Swift's Electric Rifle

There are other abbreviations formed by the first letter of each word, but they are pronounced as individual letters. These abbreviations are called initialisms. Some examples:

B2BBusiness-to-business
BMXBicycle motocross
CEOChief executive officer
CIACentral Intelligence Agency
DIYDo-it-yourself
FAQFrequently asked questions
FBIFederal Bureau of Investigation
IPOInitial public offering
NHLNational Hockey League
RFIDRadio frequency identification
WWWWorld Wide Web
An RFID tag.
Detail of an RFID tag used on a garment

The most common initialism is probably OK. It is such a popular abbreviation that it deserves its own blog post.

Communicating on the internet has created many abbreviations:

2F4UToo fast for you
AFKAway from keyboard
BBSBe back soon
LOLLaughing out loud
KISSKeep it simple, stupid
ROFLRolling on the floor laughing
YOLOYou only live once

How the first letter in an abbreviation is pronounced determines whether the indefinite article should be written a or an. Compare the following:

A UNESCO spokespersonAn unknown person
An FBI agentA federal agent
An HR managerA human resources manager

In my next blog post you can read about backronyms.

Abbreviations

The word abbreviation comes from the Latin verb abbreviare with the adjective brevis, which means short. When you abbreviate something, you make it shorter.

Many abbreviations are formed by leaving out all except the first few letters of a word. These abbreviations often end with a full stop.

abstr.abstract
ad., advert.advertisement
admin.administration
approx.approximately
betw.between
cont.continue, continued
doc.document
esp.especially
est.estimated
etc.et cetera
examexamination
fig.figure
fut.future
infoinformation
introintroduction
lab.laboratory
lang.language
memomemorandum
min.minimum, minute
misc.miscellaneous
mod.modern
obs.obsolete
orig.origin, original(ly)
pop.popular
St.Street
tel.telephone
temp.temperature, temporary
vol.volume

Names of the months are abbreviated according to this general principle of just shortening words.

Jan.January
Feb.February
Mar.March
Apr.April
MayMay
Jun.June
Jul.July
Aug.August
Sep. or Sept.September
Oct.October
Nov.November
Dec.December

There is more variation in how the days of the week are abbreviated.

Mon.Monday
Tu., Tue. or Tues.Tuesday
Wed.Wednesday
Th., Thu., Thur. or Thurs.Thursday
Fri.Friday
Sat.Saturday
Sun.Sunday

Many abbreviations leave out letters in the middle of a word and end with the last letter of the word. Here are some examples:

apt.apartment
attn.attention
atty.attorney
dept.department
fwdforward
govt.government
hr.hour
Jr.junior
Ltd.Limited
mfg.manufacturing
mgmt.management
qty.quantity
tsp.teaspoon
yd.yard
yr.year

Some titles also follow this principle:

Dr.Doctor
MessrsPlural of Mr
MrMister
MrsMistress
MsgrMonsignor
St.Saint

You can read more about titles here.

Geographical names are often abbreviated:

Cambr.Cambridge
E. Afr.East Africa
Scand.Scandinavia
TXTexas
Victoria Rd.Victoria Road

Names of the states in the USA are abbreviated to two uppercase letters. You can find them here. The capital Washington is in the District of Columbia, abbreviated DC.

Abbreviations can also become words in their own right and we no longer realise that they are abbreviations.

Hankie (or hanky) is short for handkerchief.

The American colloquialism nabe comes from neighborhood.

Pram is short for perambulator, a carriage for a baby.

Soccer is an abbreviation of association football, which is different from American football.

Two girls lying on the grass watching a soccer game.
The girls were watching a soccer game

In American English abbreviations are usually followed by a full stop. In British English this generally applies to abbreviations that are formed by the first letter or the first few letters of a word as in the first table above.

There are many Latin abbreviations in the English language, which you can read about here and here.

Acronyms and initialisms are also abbreviations. Read about them here.

Don’t say too much!

Writers often say too much by adding unnecessary words. Phrases such as free gift and joint cooperation are examples of tautology (saying the same thing twice) or pleonasm (using more words than necessary). Words that do not add information are called redundant words. Get rid of redundancies!

Here are some examples of unnecessary words:

General consensus – if you have a consensus, all agree

Foreign imports – imports are always from another country

Unexpected surprise – it wouldn’t be a surprise if you expected it

Personal friend – if  you have a friend, you have a personal relationship. Someone who is not a friend may be an acquaintance

Past history – history is about the past

The two twins – would you expect them to be three?

Four different colours – if something comes in four colours, you can be sure they are different

Unsolved mystery – if you have solved it, it is not a mystery

I am sure you can see what’s wrong in the following examples:

Moment in time

Period of time

Few in number

On a daily basis

In actual fact

Sum total

Close proximity

Necessary requirement

New beginning

Advance planning

Outward appearances

The reason why

Return back

Combinations with together and each other are common – and unnecessary:

Combine together

Collaborate together

Join together

Merge together

Mix together

Blend together

Interact with each other

Another often unnecessary word is completely:

Completely surround

Completely empty

Completely unanimous

A man lying on a sun chair on a beach.
Completely alone? No, alone!

We might include end result and final outcome in the list of unnecessary words, but these combinations are acceptable, since it is possible to also talk about a preliminary result or a preliminary outcome.

Some abbreviations:

Since LCD means liquid crystal display, you should not write LCD display.

In PIN and ISBN, N stands for number – writing number after the abbreviation is pleonastic.

RAM means random access memory – don’t add memory.

UPC stands for universal product code and therefore you should not write UPC code.

ATM means automated teller machine – write only ATM.

Pleonasm is sometimes used as a rhetorical device for emphasis:

Each and every

Any and all

First and foremost

To all intents and purposes

Such emphasis is common in legal texts:

Null and void

Aid and abet

Fit and proper

Cease and desist

Sole and exclusive

Redundant words are so common that we often don’t notice them. Read your text with an eye on redundancies – and delete them!

Mr and Mrs – and what about Mx and Esq?

We have looked at gender-neutral language in a previous blog post.

To address people we can use the honorific titles Mr, Miss and Mrs.

A man and a woman are walking on a beach by the sea.
Mr and Mrs Gibson on the beach

The female forms Mrs and Miss indicate whether a woman is married or not, which Mr does not. Mrs shows that a woman is married; many widows and divorced women retain the title even though they no longer have a spouse.

In the 1950s many women did not want to be known by their marital status and used the title Ms to replace Mrs and Miss. This usage became more widely spread in the 1970s and Ms is now the common form. However, the abbreviation Ms is older than you may think – it was used in an American newspaper as early as 1901. 

Use the neutral Ms when you write to a woman unless you notice that she herself uses the title Mrs. If in doubt, ask her what she prefers.

The gender-neutral title Mx can be used to refer to a person who wants to be identified as neither male nor female. The title has become adopted by institutions in the UK such as the Royal Mail, agencies dealing with passports and driving licences as well as several banks.  Mx is pronounced mix, sometimes em-ex.

Mr, Mrs and Mx are always used before a name, while Miss can stand alone.

Good morning, Mrs Johnson!
Thank you, Miss.

Without a following name, Mr and Mrs are replaced by sir and madam (or ma’am), respectively.

Can I help you, ma’am?
Very kind of you, sir!

The plural of Miss is Mses, and the plural of Mrs is Mmes, short for mesdames.

Mr has a plural form, Messrs, which is put before the names of two or more men, especially in the name of a company.

Send your request to Messrs Watson & Sons.

Young boys are sometimes addressed as Master.

As you see (and surely know), these titles are always capitalised. In American English there is usually a full stop after the abbreviations.

You may have come across the abbreviation Esq. The word Esquire used to be a title given to men of higher rank in society. In the 20th century it came to be used as a general title for any man, usually added after a man’s name, especially in correspondence (on envelopes and in letters) and official documents: William Brown, Esq. This is the same as Mr William Brown. If Esq. is used, you do not write Mr before the name.

When a British man is invited to Buckingham Palace, Esq. is added to his name on the envelope; for men of other nationalities, Mr is used instead.

In the United States, Esquire refers to a lawyer, irrespective of gender. It is used as an abbreviation after a person’s full name.

I suggest you contact my lawyer, Susan Hall, Esq.

When addressing correspondence to a United States diplomat, Esquire may be used, written in full.

Read about how you use honorific titles to start a letter or an email here.

Some other Latin abbreviations in English

There are many abbreviations of Latin words in English, but most of the words behind those abbreviations are not used in English in their full form.

The following are some Latin abbreviations used in English:

a.m.ante meridiembefore noon
ca.circaabout
cf.confer(bring together) compare
c.p.caeteris paribusother things being equal
e.g.exempli gratiafor example
et al.et alia, et aliae, et aliiand others
etc.et caeteraand so on
f., ff.folium, foliapage(s)
i.a.inter aliaamong other things
ibid.ibidemin the same place
i.e.id estthat is
lb.librapound (weight)
nem.con.nemine contradicenteno one dissenting
op.cit.opera citatothe work cited
p.a.per annumper year
p.m.post meridiemafter noon
p.p.per procurationemthrough the agency of
q.v.quod videon this matter see
rein rein the matter of
sicsic erat scriptumthus it was written
vs. (in legal text v.)versusagainst
viz.videlicetnamely, that is to say

You can use sic to indicate a mistake in a cited text to show that the mistake was in the original text and is not yours. It is usually put inside square brackets: [sic]

The following are capitalised:

ADanno Dominiin the year of the Lord
C.V.curriculum vitaecourse of life
M.O.modus operandimethod of operating
N.B.nota benenote well
P.S.post scriptumafter what has been written

Even if Latin words often are italicised in English text, you should write their abbreviations in normal font.

Read more about e.g. and i.e. and about et al.

Graffiti showing the abbreviations OK and K.O.
No, no, these are not Latin abbreviations!

What is the correct way of writing et al.?

The Latin abbreviation et al. is short for et alia (et aliae, et alii), meaning and others (alia is masculine plural, aliae is feminine plural and alii neuter plural).

When referring to literature, the abbreviation is used to replace author or editor names when there are more than two (in some cases more than three) authors or editors:

Simon et al. (2000) showed the importance of R&D for production.
This has been pointed out in previous research (e.g., Eriksson et al., 2016; Palm et al., 2016; Platts et al., 1996).

Make sure you put the full stop in the right place! The word et is not abbreviated but alia is, so the full stop must be after al.

When you write et al., the verb must of course have its plural form:
Simon et al. (2000) have pointed out that …

In the possessive form, et al. is followed by an apostrophe and an s:
Simon et al.’s (2000) contribution to research …

Latin words are sometimes italicised in English text, but abbreviations should not be in italics, unless the publisher requires it.

You will find some common Latin abbreviations in English here.

Use e.g. and i.e. correctly!

These two are abbreviations of Latin words.

e.g. stands for exempli gratia, which means for example.
Use e.g. when you want to list one or more examples of something you have mentioned.

Our products are sold in several European countries, e.g. France, Germany, Italy and Greece.

Since you want to give examples, don’t write a complete list.

i.e. stands for id est, which is Latin for that is or in other words.
Use i.e. to clarify or explain something.

I am a linguist, i.e. I study languages.

In writing, e.g. and i.e. are lowercase. There should be a full stop after each letter, and the abbreviations should be preceded by a comma. In American English there should also be a comma after the abbreviation; British English usually does not have this comma. Instead of a comma before the abbreviation you can have a dash.

Latin words are often italicized in English texts, but when abbreviated they should be written in normal font.

The two abbreviations can, of course, be written out in full: for example and that is or that is to say. You should avoid beginning a sentence with an abbreviation.

To sum up, e.g. opens up some possibilities, i.e. narrows them down.

You will find more Latin abbreviations in English here.

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