Condense figure legends

Many journals prefer a clipped, sentence-fragment style of writing in figure captions; examine recent issues. Usually, articles (a, an, the) can be omitted and prepositional phrases can be treated as above, shortened, or omitted.

Full sentences: Fig. 1. The chromosome characteristics of the unknown strain of Tetrahymena are illustrated; notice the large and heavily stained object in the center of the photograph, which is the macronucleus. [28 words]

Clipped form: Fig. 1. Chromosome characteristics of unknown Tetra-hymena strain; note large, heavily stained macronucleus (center). [12 words]


In scientific and technical writing, abbreviations, initialisms, acronyms, and symbols are on the increase. You undoubtedly are already well steeped in their use in your own research field. Here we offer some brief guidelines and a plea for restraint. If they are not sufficient, entire chapters in various other scientific writing manuals are devoted to stylistic conventions for the many types of shortened word forms.

Abbreviations, acronyms, and other shortened forms

As a general rule, use abbreviations and acronyms sparingly and with discretion. They should be an aid to readers, not simply a convenience to the author. In particular, avoid using a string of either. This sort of shorthand is fine in a researcher's notebook, but not in a publication.

Use of IV 2-PAM and ATR lessened 1.5 LD50 OP toxicity at 3 h PO.

Some authorities decree that one should eliminate any abbreviation that is not used at least eight times in the text (including tables and figure legends). When a cumbersome name or phrase must be used frequently in the body of the typescript, first try replacing it with a pronoun or shortened version ("the drug," "the substrate"). Then go back and substitute abbreviations only where the text seems really to require it. Whatever abbreviations you use, make sure they remain uniform throughout your paper. Inconsistent abbreviations, more common than one would assume, are exceedingly annoying to readers.

An abbreviation is the shortened version of a word (temp., cm, avg.). Acronyms and initialisms are both formed from the initial letters or syllables of two or more consecutive words or each part of a compound term. An acronym is pronounced verbally as a single word (NASA, ELISA). Each letter in an initialism is pronounced individually (NSF, ATP). Theoretically, these distinctions should make it easier to apply rules of punctuation and capitalization to these forms, but sometimes they only add to the confusion because some authorities call initialisms a type of acronym, and others call acronyms a type of initialism.

The British distinguish further between true abbreviations (such as diam., formed from the front part of a word, and requiring a period) and suspensions (such as Mr or dept, formed by removing the interior of the word, and in Great Britain used without periods). This British distinction has not caught on in the United States, but the general move to omit periods is becoming increasingly widespread. Periods are disappearing throughout the English language as it evolves. The best all-purpose rule is "be consistent."

amount. . . amt. or amt average . . . avg. or avg (preferred over ave.)

Shortened forms of capitalized words, and acronyms formed from them, generally should be capitalized and shortened forms of common nouns generally should not. Thus it is no surprise to find SI for Systeme Internationale or sp. gr. for specific gravity. Exceptions include certain acronyms that have become accepted as common nouns (laser, quasar, radar, scuba).

Initialisms take many forms. They may be written lower case (when generally they require periods) or upper case (when generally they do not require periods). Thus we have c.o.d. for collect (or cash) on delivery, but TA for teaching assistant. Many initialisms are written in all capitals without periods, even when the word itself is not capitalized. Thus we write deoxyribonucleic acid, but DNA. Internationally accepted biochemical abbreviations (DNA, ADP, NADH) do not need to be defined.

To decide whether to use a or an before a shortened form, decide on a pronunciation rationale. Do not use an abbreviation or its plural form to denote a person by title or status. To do so is slang.

Incorrect: Two MDs were consulted. Correct: Two physicians were consulted.

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  • Romilda
    How to write figure legends?
    8 years ago

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