Abbreviations in Fiction

A great many common abbreviations* behave perfectly well in any fiction or nonfiction context, including dialogue, when the general guidelines in CMOS are observed: Mr., Ms., CEO, p.m., PhD, UFO. Editors should have no quarrel with them, as long as they’re styled consistently. If it’s 11:00 a.m. in chapter 1, it shouldn’t be 2 PM in chapter 3. That’s what style sheets are for.

Nonfiction versus Fiction

On the other hand, some of Chicago’s advice for wrangling abbreviations (see CMOS 10.3) can be safely ignored by fiction writers and editors. In a novel or short story,

  • it’s OK to use even an unfamiliar abbreviation once and never again;
  • there’s no need to spell out an unfamiliar abbreviation immediately upon first occurrence;
  • explaining an abbreviation by putting the spelled-out version in parentheses (or vice-versa) will not often be a good idea; and
  • even if there are many abbreviations for readers to keep track of, it’s usually not necessary to compile a list in the back of the book.

The Chicago Way

The Chicago Manual of Style offers several ways to enlighten readers as to the meaning of obscure or invented abbreviations. Let’s look at the examples at CMOS 10.3 and consider the appropriateness of each in creative writing.

Explanations in parentheses

  • According to the weak law of large numbers (WLLN) . . .
  • The benefits of ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) are familiar to many.

This no-nonsense styling of explanations in parentheses is probably the least appealing option for writers of fiction. Let’s move on.

Parentheticals without parentheses

  • The debate over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is by no means limited to the United States.

The use of a parenthetical explanation without actual parentheses works well in fiction. Here’s an example from Michael Connelly’s crime novel The Late Show (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2018), page 14:

The police headquarters downtown was called the PAB, for Police Administration Building.

Perfect. But if there are many abbreviations in a work—common in police and spy novels, science fiction, medical, legal, and political thrillers—too many explanations like this may fatigue readers and produce an unwanted didacticism.

Explanation by proximity

  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was founded in 1958. Since its inception, NASA has . . .

This third tactic stands up well to frequent use in a novel. Putting the spelled-out term and its abbreviation close together allows the reader to put two and two together without any hint that the writer is trying to educate. Anthony Horowitz does this on page 20 of The Word Is Murder (New York: HarperCollins, 2018), where the narrator (who is a novelist) describes writing about a character who has problems with authority:

There was a scene I’d written where my detective meets his senior officer, a chief superintendent. This is shortly after the dead body of the animal rights activist has been found in a remote farmhouse. The CS invites him to sit down and the detective replies, “I’ll stand if you don’t mind, sir.”

We’ll see how this option is varied below.

Glossing Unfamiliar Abbreviations in Fiction and Dialogue

Readers can be put off by incomprehensible abbreviations, but constant explication is also wearisome. Good writers vary the ways they convey the meaning of abbreviations, and creative writers have far more leeway than scholars or reporters to extend Chicago’s guidelines—or ignore them—for good effect.

Explanation by character or narrator

Fiction writers often have one character explain an abbreviation to another in dialogue. Here’s an example from Jodi Picoult’s novel Small Great Things (New York: Ballantine Books, 2016), page 319, where a neonatal specialist explains an abbreviation to an ophthalmologist and an attorney:

“Bingo—this kid has MCADD. You can tell by the spikes on the mass spectrometry graph here at C-six and C-eight—that’s the acylcarnitine profile.” Ivan looks up at us. “Oh, okay, yeah. English. Well, the acronym is short for medium-chain acyl-coenzyme A dehydrogenase deficiency. It’s an autosomal recessive disorder of fatty acid oxidation.”

It takes skill to avoid “info-loading” dialogue in favor of speech that sounds natural. Such dialogue inevitably sounds a bit contrived; the trick is to make it believable. If all the characters in the dialogue above had been neonatal specialists, we’d be wincing at the fakery.

Clues in the context

Michael Connelly’s police detective thrillers abound with abbreviations, and we aren’t always privy to their meaning. Sometimes that’s OK. As onlookers, it’s fun to be left a little in awe of a world we can’t comprehend or share fully. As long as it’s clear what’s happening, we’re satisfied. Here’s another passage from The Late Show (pp. 12–13):

“Did you guys find her, or was it a call?”

“It was a hot shot,” Smith said. “Somebody must’ve called it in but they were GOA when we got there. The vic was just lying there alone in the parking lot.”

The shortening of “victim” to “vic” is obvious, but I couldn’t guess what GOA meant, and Connelly never spells it out (a Google search led me to “gone on arrival”). In instances like this, writers have a choice: annoy readers with the obscurity or insult them with a condescending explanation. Perhaps because the meaning of GOA isn’t essential—it’s clear that someone phoned to report the crime but no one was there when the police arrived—Connelly chose the former.

Abbreviation suspense

A delay between an abbreviation and its explanation can matter more or less to a reader, something writers and copyeditors should keep in mind when monitoring them. Some examples:

  • On page 10 of The Late Show, I encountered two abbreviations I didn’t know: “There was a P-1 standing there” and “My TO’s back there.” P-1 is never spelled out, but context tells us it’s some kind of first-level police officer (“too new in the division for her to know his name”). As for TO, however, there’s nothing to give us a clue. We’re left wondering for four paragraphs what the officer left behind. His Taser something? His tomato something? Connelly keeps copyeditors twitching until Ballard finally asks on page 11 “Who’s your training officer?” Was my momentary distraction worth the smoothness of the explication?
  • On page 20 of The Late Show, the abbreviation RHD appears, and I’m pretty sure it hasn’t been spelled out yet. “RHD will no doubt be taking this over but they will need some time to mobilize.” Since the action takes place in Hollywood, and “the division” is frequently referred to, I assumed it was Something Hollywood Division, and I was able to let go of not knowing what the R was for. Then, chapters later, on page 93, I came across “Robbery-Homicide Division.” Perhaps Connelly thought most of his readers would already know that. Maybe you did. Knowing your audience is a key component to deciding how much to explain. In a subsequent book, Dark Sacred Night (New York: Grand Central, 2019), Connelly uses the abbreviation RHD within a page of spelling out Robbery-Homicide Division (pp. 4–5).
  • In an extreme example, Nicola Griffith introduces her protagonist on page 1 of Ammonite as an “SEC rep,” leaving us to assume the US Securities and Exchange Commission has survived hundreds of years into the future—until we come to a glossary at the end of the book that defines SEC as “joint Settlement and Education Councils: Earth.” Given the number of Goodreads reader reviews that say “I wish I’d known there was a glossary at the back before I started reading,” I’d rate this one a fail. (See “Ambiguity” below.)

Not every reader will put down a book to investigate a mysterious abbreviation, but reader engagement should always be uppermost in a writer’s or editor’s mind. With a little extra effort, an abbreviation needn’t nettle.

Last resort

You can always provide a glossary à la Griffith, though readers may have trouble finding it. Another option would be to footnote your novel. Michael Crichton has been known to.†

Some Additional Considerations

Ambiguity

Abbreviations can have more than one meaning. Context usually prevents confusion, but it’s something to watch out for. PDA can be a personal digital assistant or a public display of affection. CD can mean a compact disc or a certificate of deposit. If there’s any chance your meaning could be mistaken, spell it out the first time it appears. When inventing an abbreviation, always check online for current meanings.

Help for voice actors

In Chicago style, initialisms, which are spoken letter by letter (HIV, JFK, FBI), and acronyms, pronounced as words (AIDS, SWAT, scuba), both appear without periods. In a work where a fictional entity is named with a string of capital letters, it may be unclear how it’s meant to be read. “In the year 3042 the rulers of the planets Sangdroid and Umusborn formed the DROOC.” If you want that to read as “drook,” fine. If you want it to be spelled out letter by letter, consider styling it D.R.O.O.C.

TIP
Before an abbreviation, a symbol, or a numeral, the use of a or an depends on (or, conversely, determines) how the term is pronounced: a AA battery, an AA meeting. See CMOS 7.33.

* I use the catchall term abbreviations to refer to acronyms, initialisms, and contractions when not specified, following CMOS 10.2.

† Michael Crichton (writing as Jeffery Hudson), A Case of Need (1968; New York: Signet, 2003). For example, on page 15, “dx” is footnoted as “diagnosis.”

Image: Fleuron from A New Short-Hand Grammar, by James Weston, stenographer (1746), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

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5 thoughts on “Abbreviations in Fiction

  1. I became confused about Kate Atkinson’s abbreviations of police officers’ ranks in her Jackson Brodie books. It did in no way diminish my enjoyment of the books, but I still wanted to know what they meant, and I found it difficult to find out.

    • I agree—especially since British police ranks are unfamiliar. This would be a good example of something for the writer and editor to consider addressing when editing a UK publication for the US market.

  2. Maybe, but still repetitive, because “the vic was . . . alone” — hence no one else was present when they arrived. Connelly must’ve really wanted to get GOA in there, or he could have written: “Somebody must’ve called it in, but the vic was just lying there alone in the parking lot when we got there.” Just sayin’.

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