Using Acronyms In A Research Paper

Date published October 20, 2014 by Michelle Mertens. Date updated: March 24, 2017

In the list of abbreviations, also called the explanation of acronyms, you provide alphabetical abbreviations of important terms in your dissertation. By looking at this alphabetized list, the reader can easily locate defined abbreviations.

When do you use a list of abbreviations?

If you use a lot of technical abbreviations in your dissertation, then it is advisable to provide a list of abbreviations. Not every reader of your dissertation will be familiar with these abbreviations, and many will find them difficult. The readability of your document is improved with a list of abbreviations.

Where do you put the list of abbreviations in your dissertation?

You place the list of abbreviations at the beginning of the document, just after the table of contents. The readers of your dissertation can then find any abbreviations unknown to them in this specific place.

You add the list of abbreviations header to your table of contents, so that is it clear to the reader that an explanation of abbreviations has been added to your dissertation.

It may be that you only have a few abbreviations that require explanation. You can provide these explanations in a footnote. Then the reader doesn’t have to pause to backtrack for those few abbreviations.

Example list of abbreviations


Example: List of abbrevations

Using abbreviations (acronyms) in your text

There are many rules with regard to using abbreviations in a dissertation. In short, when you use an abbreviation, or more specifically an acronym, in your dissertation for a particular word or phrase, you write the first occurrence of the word or phrase in full. Immediately thereafter, you place in parentheses the abbreviation that you will use in the rest of the document.

Example: Write the abbreviation in full at first mention

In this study, the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) at Vroom & Dreesman (V&D) is examined. At V&D, CRM has been used for many years to ensure that the focus is on customer contact and that this contact is increasingly improved.

Abbreviations according to the APA style

Do you use the APA style? The APA style sets additional specific requirements for the use of abbreviations in your dissertation.

Additional lists in your dissertation

In addition to the list of abbreviations, you can also use a list of tables and figures and a glossary. When doing so, make use of the following order:

Abbreviations (the shortened form of a word or phrase) and acronyms (words formed from the initial letters of a phrase) are commonly used in technical writing. In some fields, including chemistry, medicine, computer science, and geographic information systems, acronyms are used so frequently that the reader can feel lost in an alphabet soup. However, the proper use of these devices enhances the reading process, fostering fluid readability and efficient comprehension.

Some style manuals devote entire chapters to the subject of abbreviations and acronyms, and your college library no doubt contains volumes that you can consult when needed. Here, I provide just a few principles you can apply in using abbreviations and acronyms, and in the next section I offer a table of some of the forms most commonly used by student writers.


  • Typically, abbreviate social titles (Ms., Mr.) and professional titles (Dr., Rev.).
  • In resumes and cover letters, avoid abbreviations representing titles of degrees (e.g., write out rather than abbreviate "Bachelor of Science").
  • Follow most abbreviations with a period, except those representing units of measure ("Mar." for March; "mm" for millimeter). See the table that follows for further guidance.
  • Typically, do not abbreviate geographic names and countries in text (i.e., write "Saint Cloud" rather than "St. Cloud"; write "United States" rather than "U.S."). However, these names are usually abbreviated when presented in "tight text" where space can be at a premium, as in tables and figures.
  • Use the ampersand symbol (&) in company names if the companies themselves do so in their literature, but avoid using the symbol as a narrative substitute for the word "and" in your text.
  • In text, spell out addresses (Third Avenue; the Chrysler Building) but abbreviate city addresses that are part of street names (Central Street SW).
  • Try to avoid opening a sentence with an abbreviation; instead, write the word out.
  • When presenting a references page, follow the conventions of abbreviation employed by a journal in your field. To preserve space, many journals commonly use abbreviations, without periods, in their references pages (e.g., "J" for Journal; "Am" for "American").


  • Always write out the first in-text reference to an acronym, followed by the acronym itself written in capital letters and enclosed by parentheses. Subsequent references to the acronym can be made just by the capital letters alone. For example:
    Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a rapidly expanding field. GIS technology . . .
  • Unless they appear at the end of a sentence, do not follow acronyms with a period.
  • Generally, acronyms can be pluralized with the addition of a lowercase "s" ("three URLs"); acronyms can be made possessive with an apostrophe followed by a lowercase "s" ("the DOD’s mandate").
  • As subjects, acronyms should be treated as singulars, even when they stand for plurals; therefore, they require a singular verb ("NIOSH is committed to . . .").
  • Be sure to learn and correctly use acronyms associated with professional organizations or certifications within your field (e.g., ASME for American Society of Mechanical Engineers; PE for Professional Engineer).
  • With few exceptions, present acronyms in full capital letters (FORTRAN; NIOSH). Some acronyms, such as "scuba" and "radar," are so commonly used that they are not capitalized. Consult the table that follows in the next section to help determine which commonly used acronyms do not appear in all capital letters.
  • When an acronym must be preceded by "a" or "an" in a sentence, discern which word to use based on sound rather than the acronym’s meaning. If a soft vowel sound opens the acronym, use "an," even if the acronym stands for words that open with a hard sound (i.e., "a special boat unit," but "an SBU"). If the acronym opens with a hard sound, use "a" ("a KC-135 tanker").

Click here to download a pdf of a table of commonly used abbreviations and acronyms.

Click here to open a table of commonly used abbreviations and acronyms

Table of Commonly used Abbreviations and Acronyms

Use this table to check the proper spelling, capitalization, and punctuation of commonly used abbreviations and acronyms. For a much more detailed listing of abbreviations and acronyms, you can check in the back pages of many dictionaries, or consult the Chicago Manual of Style (also available online to subscribers) or the free online version of the United States Government Printing Office Style Manual.

A or ampampere
a.m.ante meridiem, before noon
AssemblerAssembler computer language
atmstandard atmosphere
B.A.Bachelor of Arts
BASICBASIC computer language
BPboiling point
B.S.Bachelor of Science
BtuBritish thermal unit
oCdegrees Celsius
CDCCenters for Disease Control
CFRCode of Federal Regulations
CIACentral Intelligence Agency
COBOLCOBOL computer language
DEPDepartment of Environmental Protection
DODDepartment of Defense
DOTDepartment of Transportation
e.g.exempli gratia, for example
EPAEnvironmental Protection Agency
et alii, and others cetera, and so forth
oFdegrees Fahrenheit
FBIFederal Bureau of Investigation
FCCFederal Communications Commission
FDAFood and Drug Administration
FORTRANFORTRAN computer language
HTMLhypertext markup language
Hzhertz est, that is
l or Lliter
LAFTALatin American Free Trade Association
M.S.Master of Science
NASANational Aeronautics and Space Administration
NIHNational Institutes of Health
NIOSHNational Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
NMnautical mile
NOAANational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
NSFNational Science Foundation
OPECOrganization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
OSHAOccupational Safety and Health Administration
PascalPascal computer language
Ph.D.Philosophiae Doctor, Doctor of Philosophy meridiem, after noon
radarradio detecting and ranging
RPMrevolutions per minute
scubaself-contained underwater breathing apparatus
sec. or ssecond
STPstandard temperature and pressure
URLuniform resource locator
USGSUnited States Geological Survey


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