Quiz Bowl: Geographic Abbreviations

Are you in town to watch the Chicago Cubs play the Saint Louis Cardinals, the St. Louis Cardinals, or the St Louis Cardinals? Are they playing at 1060 West Addison St, 1060 W. Addison St., or 1060 W Addison St? Is that at the corner of Addison and Clark Sts, Addison and Clark Streets, or Addison and Clark streets? Knowing when and how to abbreviate geographic terms can be tricky. That’s why this month’s AMA Manual of Style quiz offers practice and tips on how to more easily tread the winding road of geographic abbreviations style. Ready to start the journey? Here we go!

How would you edit the following:

Reprint requests should be addressed to Margaret Smith, MD, MPH, 515 North State Street, Room 22202, Chicago, IL 60654

Use your mouse to highlight the text box for the answer:

Reprint requests should be addressed to Margaret Smith, MD, MPH, 515 N State St, Room 22202, Chicago, IL 60654

When complete local addresses are given, compass directions (in this example, N for North) and street designators (in this example, St for Street) should be abbreviated. Room is never abbreviated (§14.4, Local Addresses, pp 449-450 in print).

And for the record, the Chicago Cubs play the St Louis Cardinals at 1060 W Addison St, which is at the corner of Addison and Clark streets.—Laura King, MA, ELS

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: I am writing a manuscript in which I want to include the dates that a list of products were first marketed. The database from which I got the information is a subscriber-only database. This seems to be the only place that has the information I want to use. Are such subscriber-only databases allowable to include in a reference list?

A: This question was one we had to address when working on the chapter on reference citation style and the answer we decided on was YES, these may be included in a reference list. (We did not address it specifically for a subscriber-only database, but this question also arises with reference to journal articles that are password-protected/available only to subscribers.) The rationale was 2-fold. First, if there is another place that the information can be obtained that is not behind a “wall,” then of course you might want to consider using that reference instead of the one that is not easily available to all. But, as you indicated in your case, sometimes there is no “free” site for the information you want to reference, and it’s important to acknowledge your source—even if access to it is limited. Second, thinking back to the days before people were citing much online material (and those days were not that long ago, were they?), reference lists frequently cited books that might be out of print or other sources that might not allow easy access. This doesn’t seem a reason not to include the material, even though it might be an annoyance to online readers to find that the source is not freely available, so YES.

Q: How would you cite a webinar?

A: I would extrapolate from the style recommended for citing an audio presentation:

Christiansen S. Medical copyediting with AMA style [webinar]. December 15, 2011.  http://www.copyediting.com.  Accessed April 6, 2012.

Q: In section 14.12, you state “Use the abbreviation [of units of time] only in a virgule construction and in tables and line art.” Does this mandate the use or merely allow the use of these abbreviations in these instances?

A: The answer is short. It does not mandate so much as allow, although units of measure are almost always abbreviated in column heads and stubs in tables and on axes in line art in our journals because of space considerations.—Cheryl Iverson, MA


Cheat Sheet for Abbreviations Style

Abbreviations are a convenience, a time saver, a space saver, and a way of avoiding the possibility of misspelling words. However, a price can be paid for their use. Abbreviations are sometimes not understood. They can be misread, or are interpreted incorrectly. … The person who uses an abbreviation must take responsibility for making sure that it is properly interpreted.—Neil M. Davis1

Abbreviations are used widely in medical articles, and great care should be taken to provide expansions that define these abbreviations. The AMA Manual of Style includes a straightforward rule regarding the use of abbreviations: Define abbreviations at first mention by providing the expanded term first, followed by the abbreviation in parentheses, and the abbreviation is used thereafter.

But for every rule, there are exceptions.

Some Exceptions:

• Avoid creating abbreviations for terms that are easy to spell out and do not take up a lot of space. For example, it is not advisable to abbreviate “catheter ablation” as “CA” or “immune response” as “IR.” Also, avoid using too many abbreviations in any one article.

• If a term is better known as an abbreviation, provide the abbreviation first with the definition following in parentheses. “The TUNEL (terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP-biotin nick-end labeling) staining assay was carried out using an apoptosis detection kit.”

• It is inelegant to begin sentences with abbreviations, unless the expansion is so unwieldy that using the abbreviation makes sense. The previous example, TUNEL, also works here. Rather than begin a sentence with the cumbersome expansion, it is acceptable to begin the sentence with the abbreviation TUNEL.

• Abbreviations should not be introduced in headings. If an abbreviation is being used for the first time in a heading, expand the abbreviation in the heading; then, at first mention in the running text after the heading, expand the abbreviation again, with the abbreviation following in parentheses. Use the abbreviation thereafter.

• Some very common abbreviations do not require expanding at first mention, such as AIDS, TNM, UV, and CD-ROM. A complete list of these abbreviations is provided in section 14.11, with those that do not require expansion denoted by an asterisk.

• The efficiency of using an abbreviation is lost if the abbreviation is used only one time, so as a rule of thumb, introduce an abbreviation only if it is used at least 2 or 3 times.

Items of Note:

• Tables, figures, and abstracts are treated as separate items from the text, so abbreviated terms must be reexpanded in each of these items.

• Use the appropriate article (a or an) before an abbreviation according to the sound following the article (eg, a UN resolution, an HMO plan).

• Use a lowercase s (and no apostrophe) when making abbreviations plural (eg, NSAIDs).—Lauren B. Fischer

1. Davis NM. MEDical ABBREViations: 28,000 Conveniences at the Expense of Communication and Safety. 13th ed. Warminster, PA: Neil M Davis Associates; 2007:1.

Abbreviation Nation

Of the reference books I use while editing the Archives journals, my favorite by far is MEDical ABBREViations: 28,000 Conveniences at the Expense of Communication and Safety, 13th Edition, by Neil M. Davis. Not only does it have the most wonderfully snarky title I’ve ever seen on a reference book, but it is the Great Decoder, the book that allows me to make sense of the myriad abbreviations I run across in my daily work.

As much as we are a nation of people who speak largely in cliches and mixed metaphors (I will save my rant about the overused and incorrect “magic bullet” for another day), we are a nation of overabbreviators. The number of organizations that are known by their abbreviation are too many to quantify (NFL, AMA, NORAD). We put out APBs, send out CVs, take our OTC meds, surf our Macs and PCs, and occasionally go AWOL. But when you think about it, do these mean anything? A National Football League is a thing. An NFL is not. What about an AC? Is it an air conditioner? An alternating current? Atlantic City? Though sometimes context can tell us what an abbreviation means, just as often it cannot, and it’s my job to sort these out.

As someone who previously tried to argue that texting is a valid and efficient method of communicating, it may seem hypocritical for me to do a mental fist pump every time I read Mr Davis’ snappy title, but I do. It’s because for every abbreviation that I find easily in my AMA Manual of Style or my MED ABBREV, there are so many that I must ask authors about. This worries me, because I don’t think authors would put these in their articles if they weren’t  routinely used. And though they and their colleagues and most of the American medical community may know exactly what they mean, will readers in Zimbabwe, Thailand, or Argentina? Those readers may have their own set of metaphors, jargon, and abbreviations that makes perfect sense to them. Or they may be students who don’t come across them every day. What happens when we let them slide, or when a journal doesn’t have finicky, know-it-all editors to question them? I worry that it will make journals less accessible, and that it will make medical discourse less accessible. I hate the idea of a medical student somewhere in the world not being able to use one of our articles in his research because I didn’t feel like finding out what something means. And believe me, sometimes I don’t feel like it. But I know I must be persistent, as annoying as it feels to harass a busy professional about something that seems so trivial. And that medical student out there better appreciate it.—Roya Khatiblou, MA