The proper use of abbreviations can help clarify text, while the excessive use of abbreviations can cause confusion. The APA Publication Manual provides some suggestions in the effective use of abbreviations.
The general rule of using abbreviations is as follows: Any expression that will be abbreviated should be written out in full the first time it is used followed by the abbreviation in parentheses and abbreviated thereafter. “Do not switch between the abbreviated and written-out forms of a term” (APA p. 104). An exception to this rule is the abbreviated term should be written out in full when it begins a sentence. The following text is an example of using an expression and its abbreviation in varying circumstances:
Retirement benefits have increased for 86% of chief executive officers (CEOs)
since 1995. Lewis (2002) noted placing limits on CEO retirement benefits is
not discussed “with new chief executive officers out of respect for the position
and to prevent the potential loss in shareholder value” (p. 3). An organization
may feel uncomfortable decreasing a new CEO’s retirement benefits, believing
such a discussion could start the relationship in a negative manner (Lewis).
Chief executive officers’ benefits thus continue to increase and often negatively
affect stock prices.
(Note the term in the quotation in the preceding example was not abbreviated.)
Writers of multi-chapter documents such as dissertations should remember that abbreviations should not be defined more than once in the entire document. A new chapter does not necessitate an abbreviation to be redefined.
Use an abbreviation under the following circumstances:
1. The abbreviation is conventional and familiar to the reader.
2. The abbreviation saves space.
3. The abbreviation prevents repetition.
Do not overuse abbreviations. Just because a term can be abbreviated does not mean the term should be abbreviated. Some general guidelines to prevent the overuse of abbreviations are as follows:
1. Consider whether the space saved by an abbreviation justifies the time needed to understand the meaning (APA, p. 103).
2. Avoid abbreviations that may offend, such as labeling people with specific learning disabilities LDs (APA, p. 64).
3. Avoid abbreviations that are difficult to decipher.
Avoid redundancy in an abbreviation. For example, if the No Child Left Behind Act is abbreviated NCLB, the text should not describe the NCLB Act, which would be read the No Child Left Behind Act Act.
Abbreviations should not be used in the title of a study or paper (APA, p. 11).
Most abbreviations can be pluralized by adding the letter s (not italicized and without an apostrophe): ps, Ms, and CEOs (APA, p. 110).
The following abbreviations should be used only in parentheses: cf., e.g., etc., i.e., viz., vs. (APA, p. 106).
Any abbreviations used in a table or a figure must be defined in the figure caption or table note (APA, pp. 104-105).
Abbreviations that appear in a table can be parenthetically explained in the table title (APA, p. 156).
Abbreviations should be used at least three times after they have been introduced (APA, p. 103).