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Abbreviation means to shorten a word or phrase. Abbreviations are a form of punctuation used to represent a complete word, phrase or sentence. Two letter abbreviations for state names are among the most commonly used. (i.e. NY).

Definition of abbreviations

What is an abbreviation? Is it one of the following words:

  • we're
  • it's
  • NASA
  • GE

The answer is no. None of those words qualify as abbreviations. The first two words are contractions; the second two are acronyms. While abbreviations are sometimes confused with contractions and acronyms, the three are quite different from one another. 

A contraction contracts two words—usually a pronoun and a verb—into one; examples are bisected by an apostrophe. Acronyms take the first letters from each word in a name or phrase and combine them into a new word or character set; examples are typically all in uppercase. An abbreviation, however, is a shortened form of a longer word; examples usually end with a period.

Examples and rules regarding abbreviations

Have you ever driven from Walla Walla, Wash. to Mountain View, Calif., but stopped in Grants Pass, Ore. for a sleepover on the way?

If you can't even tell where any of those none-too-famous towns are located, you don't know your acronyms of U.S. states. However, one look at the letters should make it easy to figure out that Wash. is short for Washington, Calif. is short for California, and Ore. is short for Oregon. Of course, these are the abbreviations as dictated by the Associated Press Stylebook. On envelopes, state codes like WA, CA, and OR would generally be used.

Abbreviations of certain obvious or repeated words can make the flow of vocabulary more digestible within the context of an article. News articles, for instance, will often use abbreviations of months—Nov. 3; Aug. 8; Feb. 15—whenever there's a day attached.

An abbreviation should serve as a recognizable shorthand for a lengthier word. Depending on the length of the parent word, an abbreviation should at least contain one or two syllables. For instance, if you abbreviate the word "abbreviation" as abbrev., it serves the purpose of cutting the syllables down from a cumbersome five to a roll-of-the-tongue two, but it's still easy to recognise the parent word. But if you cut the word any further—abb.—it would be rendered unrecognizable, which would defeat the overall purpose. 

Other use cases of abbreviations

Abbreviations are a convenient device for touching upon oft-recurring words within an article without bogging down wordflow with too many syllables. In news coverage, for examples, words like "Senator" and "Representative" are usually abbreviated as Sen. and Rep. when preceding the names of individual political figures. 

Initials, in general, don't qualify as abbreviations. However, there are certain two-letter abbreviations that are so commonplace that—due to their familiarity—are allowed to forgo vowels and even break syllable rules. Examples of these tiny abbreviations include:

  • Mt. – stands for "mountain"; used in advance of an actual mountain name: Mt. Hood, Mt. Shasta, etc.
  • St. – shorthand for "street"; used following a street name: 52nd St., Carnaby St., etc.
  • Co. – stands for "company"; sometimes follows the name of a given company: Skagway Brewing Co., Rutledge Cab Co., etc.
  • Ltd. – stands for "limited"; used at the end of limited-liability company names: Party Rental Ltd., Public Image Ltd., etc.

The above examples ended with an abbreviation, etc., that's far more commonly seen than its parent word: "etcetera."

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