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How do I handle abbreviations and acronyms?

Names of organisations or policy plans can be long and cumbersome in text and conversation. Hence we tend to abbreviate them to save space or time. However, acronyms create a jargon that can be hard to understand for outsiders. Good and clear academic writing assumes a reader who has a general academic training, but lacks specialised knowledge of your topic of writing. Hence you need to be careful with abbreviations, even if they have become very familiar to you.

Limit the use of acronyms

If you address a non-specialist audience, try to reduce the number of acronyms in a text to the minimum. For example, organisation names that you only use once, will not have to be abbreviated. If you use them twice, then perhaps you can avoid the second one with "this organisation" or some other reference. In many cases, over-enthusiastic writers include acronyms that are not essential for the analysis. These can be refered to footnotes or even left out altogether.

Introduce acronyms

The first time you use an acronym, you should use the full name and the acronym in brackets, e.g.:

"According to a report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the levels of..."

Later in the text, you can then assume the acronym to be known and only use the abbreviation. If an acronym only returns in your text much further, you may even want to remind the reader of the full name.

List of abbreviations

If there are a lot of acronyms in your text (let us say more than five), then you may want to include a list of abbreviations to help the reader. This should list all the acronmys used in your text alphabetically. Such a list is often included in the beginning of the text, so the reader knows this resource is available before, rather than after reading the text.

Common abbreviations are not introduced

Abbreviations that are commonly used in English do not have to be introduced. For example: e.g., etc., BBC, km. For a technical audience, you can assume that abbreviations of commonly used technical measures are known, such as ppm and ppb, but rather include the explanation (parts per million, parts per billion) in case of doubt.