When you’re writing something in a formal, business style, it can be tempting to just say no to all abbreviations.
But abbreviations can make it easier for your audience to read your piece rather than getting lost in a tangle of long company names or wordy industry terms.
Still, there are right ways and wrong ways to use abbreviations on everything from months to academic degrees to company names.
Let’s take a tour through how AP style, the gold standard for communicators, approaches a variety of different abbreviations. This list is not inclusive but should help you cover some of the most common situations you might run into.
Remember: It’s OK to develop your own house style that deviates from AP style. Just make sure you’re consistent — this is the perfect thing to include in your in-house style guide.
A note on acronyms
An acronym is a type of abbreviation where rather than shortening a single word — think “co.” instead of “company” — each word in a phrase is reduced to a letter or two. Examples of this might include a company name — Hewlett Packard on first reference, then HP thereafter — or a term, like return on investment becoming ROI.
The important thing to remember with these shortenings is that it isn’t necessary to put the acronym after your first use of the word in either parentheses or offset with commas. AP says it should be obvious what the acronym stands for on second reference or you shouldn’t use it.
In most cases, two-letter acronyms should have periods, as in U.S., U.K. or U.N. However, common exceptions include AP (since it’s a trademark) and ID. In most other cases, omit periods unless it would spell another word.
In general, AP style avoids the use of courtesy titles like “mister” or “missus” before a name, unless in a direct quote. The one exception is the use of “Dr.” on the first reference — but this is reserved for medical doctors, not those with other advanced academic degrees. Those, AP style says, should be designated with something similar to: Jane Doe, who holds a doctorate in physics.
If a person has a suffix after their name, it should be styled as Jr. or Sr.
In most cases, state names are not abbreviated and should be spelled out in full, either alone or in conjunction with a city name. However, this is a relatively recent change, so don’t beat yourself up if you’ve still been abbreviating.
There are two major exceptions: in datelines (which you probably aren’t using) or in tables, which you may be. If you are abbreviating, don’t use postal code abbreviations — use these.
If you want to indicate something happened in the morning or at night, use a.m. or p.m., lowercase and with periods.
When referring to a month on its own, write it out in full. However, if used in conjunction with a date, abbreviate these months, with a period: Jan., Feb., Aug, Sept., Oct, Nov., Dec. All others should be written out in full.
Unless in a table, do not abbreviate days of the week.
Here we get to some of AP’s weirder rules where it’s hard to determine a rhyme or reason behind what’s abbreviated and what’s not.
Spell out avenue, boulevard and street when they are used without a street number: He lives on Pine Street. Abbreviate these as ave., blvd. and st. when used with a number: He lives at 123 Pine St.
However, all other street names — alley, drive, road, court, lane, terrace, you name it — are always spelled out.
This may be a case where you want to standardize around always using abbreviations, no matter what the road name is.
Cardinal directions should be abbreviated when used with a numbered address: He lives at 123 N. Pine St.