Archive for the ‘Punctuation’ Category

Vanishing Periods: a Punctuation Bane or Blessing?

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Periods are “terminal punctuation,” mean-ing they signal “stop.”

We all know to put a period at the end of sentence. But the use of periods with abbreviations, acronyms, and other shortened versions of words is in flux.

Acronyms—abbreviations where the first letter of each word “makes” a word that’s pronounced as a word—have not used periods for ages. Examples:

  • NATO
  • OPEC
  • AIDS
  • FAQ
  • ROM
  • PIN

When acronyms linguistically take on the identity of regular words, we don’t even capitalize them any more:

  • laser
  • sonar
  • scuba

But other abbreviations that formerly required periods are increasingly going without. Is that a good or bad thing?

Well, it saves space and time. I’d much rather type “MD” and “USA” than “M.D.” and “U.S.A.”

Corporations and style guides are dropping periods after certain abbreviations called “suspensions”—such as “Dr,” “Mr,” Mrs,” and so on. Because both the first and last letter of the word are present, the trend is to drop the period afterwards. (And, some argue that not having a period after “Dr” distinguishes it from “Dr.” in an address.)

In contrast, Prof. still needs a period because the last part of the word is not there (i.e., it’s abbreviated).

Is that confusing?

It wouldn’t be, if everyone could simply agree on it.

You can see the most glaring examples of this disagreement in style guides. In academia and social science, the APA style guide still insists on periods after most everything. So, you cite an author’s name as “Smith, J. D.” in APA style—but in AMA (medical) style, it’s “Smith JD.”

Not a big deal? It is when you have big strings of author names:
APA style:    Smith, J. D., Johnson, A. M., James R. W., & Evans, D. A.
AMA style:  Smith JD, Johnson AM, James RW, Evans DA.

If it were up to me, we’d ditch APA style and universally adopt AMA style or something similar. It’s succinct, intuitive, easier to read and involves less punctuation. But something that radical might spark a turf war.

Balancing the federal budget may be impossible to agree on, but standardizing the use of periods in abbreviations should be easy.