Avoid periods in title abbreviations

Screen shot of discussion about abbreviations

The screenshot shows a conversation about title abbreviations in the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange. Style rules are less agreed upon than we usually imagine.

Dr Ulysses Everett McGill thought himself most qualified to lead the group. I hope Mr Anderson wins. Who’s heard from Ms Tippet? Ahna Skop, PhD, is our featured speaker.

In the paragraph just previous, did you trip over any of the abbreviations? Did you question what any of them meant? I very much doubt it. It’s typical, especially in countries other than the US, to omit periods for PhD, MA and other academic or professional designations that appear after a person’s name, aka post-nominal titles. In digital style the same practice can apply to pre-nominal title abbreviations such as Dr, Mr, Ms, and the like.


Characters are at a premium

Every keystroke counts when the container for content is reduced to a single column on a device that fits in a front pocket. Punctuation marks are superfluous when they take up precious space with no corresponding meaning enhancement. That’s the key. Nothing wrong with as many characters as are needed to do the job. But just as Strunk advised to “avoid needless words” in The Elements Of Style, I advise to avoid needless characters in The Elements Of Digital Style.

Excessive abbreviations weaken the hard stop

The more you use a period for other than the end of a sentence, the more ambiguous it becomes. Multiple periods in a single sentence dilute the mark’s most important meaning. And when a sentence ends with an abbreviation, the period is forced into double duty, which can be confusing.

We got this

Experience forms expectation, and our brains fill in the meaning of symbols. We all know that PhD is an abbreviation for Doctor of Philosophy, and we don’t need periods for clarity. I submit the same is true for Dr, Mr, Ms and other pre-nominal title abbreviations.

The period is a powerful visual cue—one of the earliest chunking devices. In separating sentences, the period lifts a heavy load for such a tiny mark. Give it a rest; save it for its most important task.


  1. Thom Murphy
    July 17 2017

    How ’bout MD, LLC, LLP, DO? In NY legal writing, the . has been dropped from v. in case titles, e.g., Smith v Jones.
    Here in New York State there is a published manual instructing legal writers regarding citation form in legal writing so that it is no longer based on traditions or common practice. There are no sanctions for failing to follow the forms, so there is still a lot of inconsistencies in legal writing. One of the big changes was the elimination of many periods from the forms. Reporters like A.D. 3d are now AD3D. Periods are still used in abbreviations such as Inc., Co., Ass’n., and etc. There is a similar manual in Federal practice that every law student knows affectionately as The Blue Book.

    1. Kyle Henderson
      July 17 2017

      Thom, yeah, I say drop all those periods in your initial examples. As to the legal stuff, it appears that the trend is toward simplification. That doesn’t surprise me. I think it’s important to remember that there is no set of received style conventions that’s absolute. All are contextual. Experience forms expectation, and experience is ever changing. Different houses devise or choose different house rules on text, punctuation, case, spacing and the like. Vive la difference.

      As do different industries. You mention legal. It’s the single context where I’m persuaded of the wisdom of always using the serial comma. I read recently of a case being decided on the basis of such a comma’s absence. Better safe than sorry when a court case might be decided upon it. In other contexts, not so much. AP makes perfect sense to me on that one: Don’t bother unless it’s necessary or helpful for meaning.


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