I can't find a standard, is the most common use to have the abbreviation followed by the defintion? Example

NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization

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    Whichever way you go, you should also include a glossary that defines all abbreviations and other technical terms.
    – GordonM
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 8:58
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    What style are you using? Chicago Manual of Style is pretty clear about how to use acronyms. I assume AP is as well. Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 14:49
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    We don't use any one style manual, we have been developing our own style guide over the years, but as we move to apps and more social media, new standards have to be addressed. Thanks
    – Rachel
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 16:05

5 Answers 5


Whether you put the acronym or the name first depends on how everyone refers to it. If it's almost always an acronym, but you have to explain it on first reference, write it as:

New drugs to treat HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) are promising.

If it's usually spelled out and you are introducing an acronym, or if it's referenced both ways, use the reverse:

Patrick Stewart starred as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG) alongside LeVar Burton, who was arguably better-known at the time.

Using integrated marketing communications (IMC) can increase your audience response. This webinar covers IMC methodologies and how to apply them to your brand.

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    Thanks for your response. Are you pro or con when it comes to bolding first letter of each word that makes up the acronym>
    – Rachel
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 18:50
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    Con. There's no need for it generally. Trust that your readers can recognize a capital letter without fanfare. Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 21:14
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    For the sake of consistency, I would not use two different ways of writing acronyms across documentation. Generally for things our users know (e.g. NAS) we do not define the acronym. Anything else uses the "Full Term Name (FTN)" convention.
    – topicref
    Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 11:01

I have most commonly seen it the other way around.

.... North Atlantic Treaty Organization(NATO).....

I have also seen it as:

.... North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO for short,....

I have not seen it done in the way you described, but that also does not necessarily make it incorrect. It depends on context. When writing it in an article, or essay, it is usually strongly urged to write it out with the full name and then provide the acronym in parentheses afterwards. This usually designates to the reader that anything with that acronym thereafter represents the full name first mentioned.

The way you provided is usually provided as an appendix for people to be able to look up as a side to the writing.

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    Good point and thanks for taking the time to respond. I have just realized over the last year or so, as we create new apps that consistently use acronyms, that we need a standard in our department. I guess the new question is what should hold the spotlight (first spot) acronym/name, or full name followed by acronym (which is used throughout after first defintion.) Thanks
    – Rachel
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 18:16
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    @Rachel sure! Like I said it just depends on context. If it's for a manual, this might be better used as an appendix as the way you formatted. If it's for text within a body of writing, it would be better to list as I suggested :).
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 18:22
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    Thanks, are you pro or con when it comes to bolding the first letter in each word that makes up the acronym?
    – Rachel
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 18:48
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    @Rachel I cannot speak to whether I am for or against that. I have not seen it done that way nor have I done it that way. It also depends on the context of which you are writing this. Is this for a manual? Essay? Appendix? If you could provide me some details on that, maybe I can better assist you.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 19:57

I don't think there is any one rule that fits every case here. The golden rule, if anything, would be to not overburden the reader, but keep in mind what they can be expected to know up front. Not overburdening the reader includes not giving irrelevant facts just because you can; if the reader simply doesn't need to know what the expansion of the abbreviation is in order to fully understand the text, then consider whether you really need to spell it out in the first place. Maybe a footnote would be sufficient, and you don't need to include it in the prose?

You do say "technical" writing, so I'm going to go with some technical terms. Would you rather use...

  • radar which is accepted as a word these days, while originally it was an abbreviation for either radio detection and ranging or radio direction and ranging.
  • PC or personal computer?
  • SMS or short message service? This one becomes more complicated because when most people use the term "SMS", they aren't really referring to the infrastructure but rather to the text that they are sending to a recipient cell phone.
  • IPv6, which is a widely accepted term, or Internet Protocol version 6?
  • LCD or liquid crystal display?
  • TV or television receiver?
  • car or automobile? (Particularly in languages where the word for car more obviously derives from the word for automobile, such as in Swedish where car is bil and automobile is automobil.)

I think you see where I'm going with this. At some point, you simply have to assume that the reader is familiar with some of the context in which your work exists. Otherwise, we wouldn't even have anything that qualifies as a meaningful language.

For your example of NATO the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also keep in mind the intended audience. If you are writing in a context where precision is critical, then obviously you should be using the full, official name. If your audience can be expected to know what NATO is, then you might consider just using the abbreviation, which is relatively widely understood in the western world. If your target audience can be expected to not have a clue what NATO is, then the chances that they will be able to understand what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is probably aren't much better, so you will need to offer a short introduction anyway, at which point you can give the variant they are more likely to be familiar with first, and the other afterwards. For example,

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or in French Organisation du Traité de l'Atlantique Nord, is a military alliance originally founded in 1949. As of 2017, it consists of 29 member countries.

With the introduction out of the way, you should be able to relatively safely refer to them by merely the abbreviation, NATO, later in the text.

If you are uncertain, I tend to find that a good rule of thumb is to use whatever Wikipedia uses for the main article on a subject. You'd probably rather use car than automobile, and sure enough, if you plug automobile into Wikipedia, you end up at the page named car.


Always spell out the name first then the acronym:


A common three letter acronym (TLA) used in Michigan is Secretary of State (SOS) where all residents go to get their driver's license.

After spelling out the name and having the acronym in parentheses, you can use the acronym from there on out.


The most unobtrusive method is often the best. Many organizations and style manuals suggest using the full term on first reference, and then using the abbreviation on subsequent references.

"The Bureau of Land Management issued the order on July 16. According to BLM regulations...."

Many editors suggest that the "full term (abbreviation)" form is redundant; it assumes that readers are quite dense. This is not what good technical (or other non-fiction writing) should do. It's like the detestable habit of spelling out numbers and then also writing the digits in parentheses. These are the kinds of things that lawyers do to make documents seem especially important (and costly).

The AP Style Guide is an excellent reference for writing that involves government, business, and other organizations. AP specifies which agencies, such as the FBI and NFL, can be abbreviated on first reference.

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    The "full term (abbreviation)" form can be helpful when people are searching the doc for the abbreviation to find out what it means. If the writer has done it right, the first search hit in the doc should provide the full term. For a document that you know is going to be read from start to end (rather than people jumping in anywhere), it might be less important. Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 2:43

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