Acronyms, Initialisms, and Capitalization

Imagine you have a paper to write about labor unions in the United States, and you have to painstakingly write “American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations” every time the AFL-CIO came up. Likely, you and your readers would get tired of that very quickly. Thankfully, placing the initials in parentheses right after its long form comes up the first time will allow you to use its short form thereafter.

EXAMPLE: Many unions link at the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Several critics have expressed that near slave labor conditions would still be in practice if not for the AFL-CIO.

The same rule of thumb that applies to initialisms applies for acronyms—which in essence are initials pronounced as a word.

EXAMPLE: Many amazing players have played in the Federación International de Fútbol Asociación (FIFA) world cup. Without players like Pele, Maradona, or Messi, FIFA wouldn’t be the same.

Before using acronyms and initialisms

  • Search in the internet or dictionaries for authentic and established initialisms and acronyms instead of making up your own.
  • If you use too many initialisms and acronyms together, especially those sounding alike, you might confuse your readers instead of giving them a break.
  • Leave the casual acronyms and initialisms used in note taking, and modern day virtual chatting, out of essays, papers, and formal academic writing (Ex: b/c, con., w/, &, LOL, OMG, etc.).

Tip: You can’t always assume something has an acronym or initialism, especially if it is a small group or organization (UIS’ Career Development Center can’t be listed as the CDC because we know that as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Popular initialisms and acronyms

  • Major League Baseball (MLB)
  • Grand Old Party (GOP)
  • National Air Space Administration (NASA)
  • University of Illinois Springfield (UIS)
  • European Union (EU)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • American Psychological Association (APA)
  • National Basketball Association (NBA)
  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • Monetary Award Program (MAP)
  • National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR)
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)

Capitalization

Knowing which letters to capitalize in a document is paramount for communicating a particular tone. If someone were to write entire emails in all caps, the reader might imagine someone was yelling angrily at them and it would make them feel uncomfortable and pressured.

By writing in all caps, your readers might believe you are screaming at them, which might distract your reader or distance them from you. So, let’s look at the most basic rules for capitalization so that you make sure you present your ideas professionally and with a level head.

  • Always capitalize the first letter of the first word of a sentence, either at the beginning of a paragraph, or belonging to subsequent sentences. Notice both of these instances in bold here.
  • For degree titles, do not capitalize “bachelor’s” or “master’s” unless when used as part of the actual degree name:
    • Master of Science
    • Bachelor’s in English Education
    • She has a master’s degree.
  • Always capitalize proper nouns, or the names of a) people, b) specific dates, c) events, d) brands, e) months of the year, f) days of the week, g) languages, and h) notable landmarks:
    • Johnny Vidacovich
    • Grand Canyon
    • New Orleans Jazz Fest
    • Kraft
    • May
    • Friday
    • Chinese
    • Eiffel Tower
  • Capitalize large words (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) in titles of big works; however, do not capitalize any of the small words (articles, prepositions, and conjunctions) unless these are at the beginning of the title or subtitle
    • Star Wars
    • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
  • Capitalize job titles when accompanied by the persons’ name, but do not capitalize without the name of the title’s holder.
    • President Obama did not seem thrilled by the majority’s vote regarding Brexit.
    • The president did not seem thrilled by the majority’s vote regarding Brexit.
  • Capitalize the names of classes when accompanied by their specific number, but abstain from capitalizing it alone unless it is a language.
    • I took Math 102.
    • I took a math class.
    • I decided to take English 101.
    • I decided to take an English class.
  • Capitalize the cardinal points and directions when included in the name of a region, but do not capitalize cardinal points or directions by themselves.
    • The North West is my favorite part of the country.
    • The Deep South is very interesting.
    • Go north five blocks.
    • Fly south for 25 nautical miles.