To abbreviate or not to abbreviate – that is the question!

Have you found yourself writing your dissertation and you question if you should use a country name or some variation of an abbreviation? This blog post will help.

As an editor and professor, I read lots of dissertations and I find that it is common for there to be inconsistency with how students write out country names or use abbreviations in general. This blog post will focus on the abbreviation of countries, when to use periods with an abbreviation, and when to use abbreviations in general.

As a general rule, most abbreviations need to be introduced with the full spelling of each word first. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) is the writing style of choice. Notice how APA is spelled out first. This should be the process with most abbreviations.

Commonly used abbreviations may not need to be written out. If the abbreviation is listed as a word in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary then it will not need to be written out prior to using it as an abbreviation. Examples of such abbreviations include APA, FBI, HTML, NASA, NBA, NFL, and PDF.

When writing your dissertation in APA 7, the rule of thumb is to spell out the full name of the country if it is used as a noun. For example, the United Kingdom or the United States of America. Below is an example:

Smith (2022) conducted a study of 331 healthcare workers in the United States of America (noun). She acquired their names and contact information from the U.S. (adjective) Database of Doctors.

An author can abbreviate the country name if it is used as an adjective. For example, the U.S. stock report or the U.K. education system. In the example above, I use the U.S. Database of Doctors.

Notice that when abbreviating a country, the abbreviation includes periods unless it is the heading or on the title page. It is best to avoid using abbreviations if at all possible in a heading or on the title page.

Using periods in the abbreviation of a country is counterintuitive as many other abbreviations do not use periods with APA style. If the abbreviation is in all capital letters, such as CIA, NYT, or TOC, the periods are not needed.

If the abbreviation is for measurements, the periods are not needed unless it is for inches. For example measurements of length would be ft or mi for feet or mile. The abbreviation for inch actually uses one period to avoid confusion (in.). Measurements of time would be abbreviated hr or min for hour or minute.

Other abbreviations should be used only if they assist the reader with clarity or if the abbreviation is easily recognized. It is usually easier to read a chapter if the words are spelled out. For example, transformational leadership theory includes the following four domains: idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration. Many authors will abbreviate each domain as II, IM, IS, and IC. While this is convenient on one hand, it can also cause challenges with readability on the other hand.

The problem usually enters the paper as the abbreviations are not used consistently. As a general rule, if an abbreviation is used, it should be used at least three times. Otherwise, it is not really adding any value to the paper. Another rule of thumb is that if an abbreviation is used, it should be reintroduced periodically, yet consistently. In the example of transformational leadership domains, I would advise against using the abbreviations; however, if an author wants to use them I suggest introducing the abbreviations the first time the words are used and then using the abbreviations for the rest of the section (think Microsoft style 2nd heading). When the next section is presented, I would spell out the abbreviation again the first time in that heading and then use the abbreviations consistently throughout that section. This reminds the reader periodically of the full name without them having to search for it.

Overall, my advice is to avoid abbreviations unless they are absolutely necessary or they increase the readability of the document. If an abbreviation is used, make sure they are used properly and consistently. One final thought on readability is to use the Microsoft readability feature. To do this with your Word document open, select Home > Editor > Document Stats > OK. The readability scores will include Flesh Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. I have seen recommendations for dissertations to be at or below the 8/9 grade level. Check with your school to see if they have such a requirement.

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