Should I use abbreviations in my writing?



Dissertation grading time

The end (of the academic year) is neigh! This means student dissertations are upon us, and your lecturers (or “professors” for those in a US-type system) are in the middle of grading. I am no exception, and I thought I’d share one of my biggest pet peeves: entirely unnecessary and non-standard abbreviations (EUNSA). These EUNSA are the bane of my life (BML), as they make text really hard to parse (H2P) without having to go back and check (GBC).

Abbreviations are bad for readability

Many students and academic writers think that such abbreviations are a good way to reduce the word count to their manuscript. This is understandable, because university essays and journals often have strict word limits, so more EUNSA means more words packed into your text!

However, when you read a sentence with several EUNSA that are BML, you’ll quickly see why they are H2P, and thus now you have to GBC. Did you remember all of those abbreviations? Even I didn’t, and I just wrote them!

The core problem with abbreviations is that nobody will understand them, and you thus force people to do one of two things:

  1. Scroll back up through your work to check what the abbreviation was for, or
  2. Bravely soldier on in the vain hope that the meaning will become clear from context.

You’ll annoy the readers who opt for the first option, and they might gradually opt for the second. Those who do are very unlikely to actually understand the meaning of your abbreviation from context, because you will have used sentences like “RAA was significantly lower in the ABC condition [M=-0.05, SD=0.87] compared to the XYZ condition [M=0.34, SD=0.86], t(198)=-3.21, p=0.002, BF10=17.6, d=0.45.”


Do not use abbreviations; it’s bad writing. Readers will not understand your text, and your message will be lost. Just write them out. If you’re concerned about the word limit, cut more unnecessary words out. If you’re concerned about word repetition because you’ve overused an abbreviation, maybe don’t use it so much, or maybe come to terms with the fact that some pieces of technical writing are going to be a bit ugly. Text comprehension is key; don’t sacrifice it by using EUNSA*.

*SEE?! You have no clue what this abbreviation means despite it being defined just paragraphs earlier. Just don’t use them!

One Comment:

  1. Pingback: Sex and/or gender in academic writing – Quantitative Exploration of Development (Q.E.D.)

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