What Is an Abbreviation?

abbreviation
In textspeak, the abbreviation (or initialism) OMG stands for "Oh my God" or "Oh my goodness.". (Jacquie Boyd/Getty Images)

An abbreviation is a shortened form of a word or phrase, such as Jan. for January. The abbreviated form of the word abbreviation is abbr.--or, less commonly, abbrv. or abbrev.

In American English, many abbreviations are followed by a period (Dr., Ms.). In contrast, British usage generally favors omitting the period (or full stop) in abbreviations that include the first and last letters of a single word (Dr, Ms).

When an abbreviation appears at the end of a sentence, a single period serves both to mark the abbreviation and to close the sentence.

Linguist David Crystal notes that abbreviations are "a major component of the English writing system, not a marginal feature. The largest dictionaries of abbreviations contain well over half a million entries, and their number is increasing all the time" (Spell It Out, 2014).

See Examples and Observations below.

Etymology

From the Latin, "short"

Examples and Observations

  • "In general, spell out the names of government bureaus and agencies, well-known organizations, companies, etc., on first reference. In later references, use short forms like the agency or the company when possible because handfuls of initials make for mottled typography and choppy prose."
  • "Abbreviations may be ironic, humorous, or whimsical: for example, the rail link between the town of Bedford and the London station of St. Pancras is locally known as the Bedpan Line; a comparable link for Boston, New York, and Washington is the Bosnywash circuit. Comments on life may be telescoped into such sardonic packages as: BOGSAT a Bunch Of Guys Sitting Around a Table (making decisions about other people); GOMER Get Out of My Emergency Room (said by physicians to hypochondriacs); MMMBA Miles and Miles of Bloody Africa (an in-group term among people who have to travel those miles); TGIF Thank God It's Friday (after a particularly hard working week)."
  • Abbreves
    "Today, the fave (for 'favorite’) abbreves are obvi (a shortening of 'Thank you, Captain Obvious’) and belig (a clipping of 'belligerent,' retaining the soft g). Nobody in the young-barflies crowd orders 'the usual’; it’s the yoozh. My grandnephew Jesse concludes sentences with whatev, which is probs (for 'probably’) 'whatever.' In this cacophony of abbreves, word endings are scattered all over the floor. Go fig."
  • Tote-Speak

    "You see it on Twitter a lot, people exclaiming about their totes delish spags or their totes redic boyfs. Linguists Lauren Spradlin and Taylor Jones call this practice 'totesing'—the systematic abbreviation ('abbreviash') of words to effect a certain tone. The fad might have started with 'totally' becoming totes, but at this point, no entry in the English lexicon is safe.

    The following are some real words produced by real human beings on Twitter:

    • Totes tradge (tragic): David Bowie dying is totes tradge.

    • Bluebs (blueberries): Bluebs in yog are my favorite snack.

    • Totes emosh (emotional): When Cookie hugged Jamal it made me totes emosh.

    • iPh (iPhone): OMG I dropped my iPh!

  • If you’re not a millennial—and even if you are—you might think totesing is atrosh and unprofesh. But get used to it. Though no one is quite sure where it came from, this way of speaking has been around for well over a decade."
  • Logograms
    "'Logograms' . . . play a part in the English writing system: these are cases where a word is not just shortened, but entirely replaced with a symbol. Examples include @ for 'at,' £ for 'pound,' % for 'per cent,' and + for 'plus.' The ampersand, &, is one of the oldest. It is a collapsed version of the Latin word et, 'and': the bottom circle is what's left of the e, and the rising tail on the right is what's left of the t. Numerals are another kind of lopgram: we read 1, 2, 3, etc. as 'one, two, three...' And it is part of the business of learning to read and write to know when we should write words in their logographic form and when to spell them out."

Pronunciation

ah-BREE-vee-AY-shun

Sources

A. Siegal, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, 1999

Tom McArthur, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992

William Safire, "Abbreve That Template." The New York Times Magazine, May 21, 2009

Jeff Guo, "The Totes Amazesh Way Millennials Are Changing the English Language." The Washington Post, January 13, 2016

David Crystal, Spell It Out. Picador, 2014