Acronyms, All Caps, Plurals, and Possessives

This topic came up recently in my own task of proofreading. If you have an acronym or another all capital letter word, how do you make it plural or possessive? And then once you do, is the added pluralization or possession in all caps or not?

The short answer is that any pluralization or possession is added to the base word, but in this case, it is NOT in all caps:

  • There are never any ATMs around when you need them.
  • ADOT’s signs don’t always help the traffic flow.

There are times where you will need to use an apostrophe to avoid confusion:

  • Her report card had all A’s and B’s.

Here, the “A’s and B’s” are not possessive, but it could be confusing to leave the apostrophe out in “As” as it is a different (and real) word. In this case, the apostrophe in “B’s” is for consistency.

There is some confusion when using abbreviations because making the abbreviations possessive may be different than making the entire original words possessive:

  • The United States’ geography is so varied and interesting.
  • The U.S.’s geography is so varied and interesting.

You will use the rules depending on how it sounds. The “United States” spelled out does not need an apostrophe and “s” because you don’t say the extra “s.” But using the abbreviation “U.S.,” you would say the extra “s,” so would add the apostrophe and “s.” See Apostrophail!.

Just remember that only the original acronym or abbreviation should be in caps and any pluralization or possession would be added to that, but not in caps.

An Abbreviation–Is It An Initialism Or An Acronym?

An abbreviation is a group of letters acting as a shortened form of a phrase such as CD, ATM, FBI, etc. Abbreviations that are pronounced letter by letter–such as ATM, AC–are called initialisms while abbreviations pronounced as words–such as ZIP, PIN–are called acronymsThe Gregg Reference Manual uses a great example with CT scan and CAT scanCT is an initialism and CAT is an acronym. For ease here, we will call them all abbreviations. When using abbreviations, do not use a word that is part of the abbreviation with the abbreviation. For instance, do not use PIN number since PIN is the abbreviation for personal identification number, so you would be saying personal identification number number.

Once you have the abbreviation correct, how you treat the abbreviation in a sentence requires that you do not think of the phrase, but think of the abbreviation as its own new word. So if you’re trying to decide whether to use or an with your abbreviation, think about how you would pronounce it. For example with PIN, it would be a PIN, and with ATM, it would be an ATM. See Listen to Choose an Appropriate Article to help you make that decision.
Other problems come when you are using an abbreviation for a phrase, i.e., TOS for Terms of Service or SAC for Second Amended Complaint. It can be confusing to determine whether to treat the abbreviation as singular or plural in deciding how to make it plural or possessive. Once you turn your phrase into an abbreviation, think of that abbreviation as a word and no longer the complete phrase. For example,
The Terms of Service’s provisions allow the prescribed activity.
The TOS’s provisions allow the prescribed activity.
or
In a Second Amended Complaint, you must redline the differences from the original Complaint.
In an SAC, you must redline the differences from the original Complaint.
Abbreviations are useful in legal writing (particularly with page limits), but try to keep it to something that makes sense and try not to turn every phrase into an abbreviation or your reader will have to have a road map in order to be able to make sense of your writing. While we are on that topic, when I’m working in a document with lots of defined terms (including abbreviations), I usually start a chart on my second screen or on a notepad so I can make sure the same phrase is abbreviated or capitalized consistently throughout the document as it is defined. It is the small things you can easily keep track of that will make all the difference in having a document that is correct and consistent.

Academic Degrees, Professional Designations, and Periods

Since it’s the season of graduations, I thought it appropriate to talk about how to use academic degrees and professional designations.

Typically, abbreviations of academic degrees are written with periods after each element of the degree:

  • B.A.
  • Ph.D.
  • LL.B.
  • M.D.
  • R.N.

The term “MBA” is commonly written without periods when talking about an executive with certain training rather than the degree itself. The degree is still “M.B.A.” with the periods.

When using the degree as part of the name, do not use personal titles before the name and only use the degree when using a person’s full name:

  • Dr. John Powell, M.D. SHOULD BE John Powell, M.D.
  • Mr. John Smith, Ph.D. SHOULD BE John Smith, Ph.D.

However, other titles may precede the name when they do not convey the same meaning as the degree that follows the name:

  • Dean John Smith, Ph.D.

When two or more academic degrees follow a name, they should be listed in the order they were awarded and honorary degrees should follow earned degrees.

Professional designations are generally written without periods when used alone, but with periods when used with academic degrees:

  • Frank Brown, CPA
  • Frank Brown, B.S., M.B.A., C.P.A.
  • Kathy Sieckman, PP, PLS, ACP

List professional designations only where one’s professional qualifications are relevant to the topic under discussion. I take this to mean that when you have worked hard to earn professional certifications, they should be used whenever you are representing your profession.