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Style Manual

Acronyms and initialisms

Acronyms and initialisms are shortened forms. They replace full names and special terms in text. Use them only if people recognise and understand them.

Choose acronyms and initialisms people will recognise

Acronyms are terms that comprise initial letters and you can pronounce as a word.

Example

Qantas

Anzac

TAFE

Initialisms are terms that comprise initial letters and you pronounce as letters, not a word.

Example

ABC

GST

NDIS

Acronyms and initialisms are common in formal content. If understood by users, they can make content easier to use. They communicate terms in as few letters as possible to make content easier and faster to read.

Example

CSIRO for ‘Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’

HTML for ‘hypertext markup language’

When preparing content for well-established publications, such as professional journals, look at the author guidelines and examples of the content. This will show whether using acronyms and initialisms is appropriate and, if so, which shortened forms are used.

Explain acronyms and initialisms to all users

People unfamiliar with certain terms might not understand their shortened forms. Acronyms and initialisms might also be misread by screen readers.

To make sure all shortened forms are accessible:

  • Define them the first time you use them in content (unless you’re certain all users will understand them without a definition – consult a dictionary first).
  • Include them with their spelt-out forms in the glossary. This is particularly important if the content contains many specialist shortened forms.

Spell out most acronyms on first use

If there’s a chance users won’t know the meaning of an acronym or initialism, define it at first mention. Write the term in full first and follow with the acronym or initialism in parentheses. Use the shortened form rather than the full term for later mentions.

Example

The Department of Social Services (DSS) manages a range of benefits and payments for eligible Australians. DSS helps support communities through a number of programs and services.

Write well-known acronyms or initialisms first and follow with the full term in parentheses.

Example

All living organisms have DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) within their cells. DNA tells cells what proteins to make.

You don’t need to define some acronyms and initialisms on first use. These include:

  • some place names (NT, ACT)
  • time of day (am, pm)
  • some equipment or technological terms (‘radar’, ‘scuba’, ‘sonar’)
  • some organisational names (BHP, Qantas).

Repeat the full term if the user needs it

If you use the shortened form only a few times in long-form content, consider writing out the full term more than once.

People could come across the shortened form without reading the text where it is first defined. For example, a user might click straight to a section that only includes the shortened form.

Check the correct shortened form for government organisations

The names of government departments are often shortened, but not always in the same way.

Example

DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)

Home Affairs (Department of Home Affairs)

Rather than using acronyms or initialisms, it can be easier for people if you:

  • spell out the agency’s name in full the first time you use it
  • then use the generic name (‘department’, ‘agency’, ‘bureau’) afterwards.

This is usually more useful to non-specialist users.

Example

The Bureau of Meteorology prepares Australia’s official weather forecasts. The bureau provides its forecasts on its website.

The Department of Finance is in Canberra. The department supports government financial management.

Include a list if content relies on many acronyms and initialisms

For content with many specialised acronyms and initialisms, provide a glossary – a list of terms and their meaning that users can refer to.

Include the glossary at the end of the content or on a separate webpage. Use a hyperlink in the text to help people access the glossary.

You don’t need to include a glossary if:

  • there are only a few unfamiliar shortened forms
  • each one is only in a very limited section of text
  • each one is spelt out when first mentioned.

Print considerations

The glossary usually appears before the references (with the endmatter).

Don’t end acronyms and initialisms with a full stop

Don’t place a full stop after the acronym or initialism.

The exception is if the shortened form ends a sentence and isn’t followed by another punctuation mark.

Example

Will you be attending COAG this month? [No full stop after the acronym]

I’m working on a B2B project at the moment. [No full stop after the initialism]

She’s now working in FOI. [A full stop after the initialism that ends the sentence]

Is the company being investigated by ASIC? [No full stop after the acronym because another punctuation mark ends the sentence]

Use capitals for most acronyms and initialisms

Acronyms are usually all capitals, but use lower case for some familiar acronyms (‘radar’, ‘laser’, ‘scuba’). Use an initial capital for familiar acronyms that are proper nouns (‘Qantas’).

Initialisms are often all upper case (‘VOIP’, ‘FOI’) but there are exceptions (‘HTML’). Consult a dictionary if you’re unsure of the capitalisation.

If the acronym or initialism represents common nouns, don’t begin each word of the full form with a capital letter.

Example

EIS for ‘environmental impact statement’

TB for ‘tuberculosis’

If the acronym or initialism represents a proper noun, start each word with a capital letter (excluding words such as ‘of’ and ‘and’).

Example

ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Organisation]

OPC [Office of Parliamentary Counsel]

NSW [New South Wales]

Qantas [Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services]

Avoid plural and possessive forms on the first use

Avoid using the plural or possessive of an acronym or initialism when you define it. This makes it easy for users to recognise the shortened form in later content.

Example

It’s compulsory for certain businesses to have an Australian Business Number (ABN). The Australian Business Register manages applications for ABNs. [There’s no need to use an apostrophe before the ’s’ for ABNs as the term is plural, not possessive.]

The Australian National University (ANU) has a new student policy. The ANU’s policy is popular with its staff and students. [Use an apostrophe before the ’s’ to show that the ANU owns the policy.]

Quote acronyms and initialisms the same way as the speaker

When quoting an exact phrase, write exactly what the speaker said. If they used an acronym or initialism, quote it. Show the full term in square brackets if users might not recognise the term or if you haven’t already explained it.

Example

‘We’re continuing to manage the number of SES [Senior Executive Service] to ensure the Public Service isn’t top heavy,’ he said.

Release notes

The digital edition updates punctuation style for shortened forms. 

  • It removes the requirement to use full stops with non-Latin abbreviations.
  • Consistent with what was Content Guide advice, it recommends avoiding the use of Latin shortened forms.
  • Consistent with the sixth edition, it does not use full stops with acronyms or initialisms, or contractions.

The digital edition lists common shortened forms and provides advice on the limited circumstances where they could be used and how to punctuate them. 

This is a departure from advice in the sixth edition, which listed ‘thoroughly anglicised’ shortened forms used regularly in publications. It did not explicitly warn against their use.

The Content Guide mentions shortened words and phrases but did not provide detailed advice. It advised to avoid using Latin shortened forms, in line with the guidance in this edition of Style Manual.

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References

Btb Translation Bureau (n.d.) ‘1: abbreviations’, The Canadian style, Btb Translation Bureau website, accessed 4 May 2020.

Content Design London (2019) ‘Abbreviations and acronyms’, Content Design London Readability Guidelines, Content Design London website, accessed 30 March 2020.

GOV.UK (2016) ‘A–Z: abbreviations and acronyms’, Style guide, GOV.UK, accessed 4 May 2020.

Hales A, Williams K and Rector J (February 2017) ‘Alienating the audience: how abbreviations hamper scientific communication’, Association for Psychological Science, accessed 7 January 2020.

Narod S, Ahmed H and Akbari M (2016) ‘Do acronyms belong in the medical literature?: a countercurrents series’, Current Oncology, 23(5):295–296, doi:10.3747/co.23.3122.

Sehl K (24 April 2019) ‘The ultimate list of social media acronyms and abbreviations’, Hootsuite Blog, accessed 8 January 2020.

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (2020) ‘4.4: abbreviations and acronyms’, Canada.ca content style guide, Canada.ca, accessed 4 May 2020.

W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) (n.d.) ‘G102: providing the expansion or explanation of an abbreviation’, Techniques for WCAG 2.0, W3C website, accessed 7 January 2020.

W3C (n.d.) ‘H28: providing definitions for abbreviations by using the abbr element’, Techniques for WCAG 2.0, W3C website, accessed 7 January 2020.

W3C (n.d.) ‘PDF8: Providing definitions for abbreviations via an E entry for a structure element’, Techniques for WCAG 2.0, W3C website, accessed 7 January 2020.

W3C (n.d.) ‘Understanding Success Criterion 3.1.4: abbreviations’, Understanding WCAG 2.1, W3C website, accessed 5 May 2020

Watson L (8 February 2017) ‘How to create content that works well with screen readers’, Accessibility in government blog, accessed 7 January 2020.

Wright N (n.d.) ‘Keep it jargon-free’, Resources, plainlanguage.gov.

This page was updated Wednesday 9 September 2020.

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