Last week, I chanced upon a copy of the Madras University yearbook for 1925. Among the alumni listed there as winners of prizes and medals, there were many who later distinguished themselves in their fields and did the university proud. A curious expression that I noticed in the list was M. R. Ry. written as a title before the names. It was an Indian version of Mr. but much more adulatory. The expansion of the title is “Maha Raja Raja Sry”. In the list of medallists, I found M. R. Ry. John Mathai and M. R. Ry. P S Lokanathan. M. R. Ry. is still used in southern India in the traditional, ceremonial wedding invitations printed on red and yellow paper and sent to close relatives.
When we browse our grammar books, we tend to skip the pages that deal with abbreviations. We regard them as an appendage, not an appendix, that can be ignored. But when we actually write, we find that we have doubts at every stage. To take an instance, how do I write half past four in the afternoon in an abbreviated form. My students have come up with several answers: 4.30 P.M., 4.30 p.m., 4.30 pm, 4:30 pm and 1630 hrs. Which is your preferred format?
The abbreviations that we most frequently use are Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms before people’s names. In the 1950s, a full stop in abbreviations was standard usage. Today, in British usage, no full stop is used if the abbreviation has the same first letter and last letter as the original word. Dr, Lt and St for “saint” are examples.
The expanded form of Mrs should be mistress, but the two have different meanings, mistress having become a pejorative word. Ms is an abbreviation, but it has no corresponding expansion. How do you pronounce Ms? My dictionary has “miz” and also a second pronunciation with an indeterminate vowel sound. Writers are advised to use the form preferred by the person named.
There are a few Latin abbreviations in wide use. We have already mentioned a.m. and p.m. Exempli gratia is written as “e.g.” and means “for example”. It should be distinguished from id est, written as “i.e.”, which means “that is”. French et cetera means “and so on”. Its abbreviation is “etc.”, often miswritten as “ect” or “e.c.t.” or “and etc”. It would sound impolite to use “etc.” to refer to people, as in this sentence: “Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, etc. were poets of the Romantic era.” Dictionary entries for these Latin terms have full stops. One abbreviation, viz, has a curious origin. It is formed from videlicet, translated as “it is permissible to see”. It is usually read aloud as “namely” or “that is to say”.
Acronyms are words formed by putting together the first letters of a descriptive phrase or name. Some of them become regular nouns, such as laser and radar. A well-known and widely cited example is NATO, which is in the news almost every day. There are no full stops between these letters, though you may occasionally find examples like U.S.A. Some people consider full stops outdated, and there is a trend to discard full stops altogether. Acronyms can be pronounced as independent words, as in NASA, UNESCO and AIDS. These are to be distinguished from initialisms, in which the first letters of a phrase or name are uttered as a series of individual letters, not making up words. HIV, SPCA, RSVP (from French), and HTML are initialisms.
Abbreviations of units of measurement have their own format. Such units are written without full stops; they don’t have a plural form with –s or with apostrophe and –s. The exception is “inch”. When abbreviated to “in.” it takes a full stop, to avoid confusion with the preposition “in”. The following forms are not acceptable: 10 kgs, 15cm., and 500 mgs. Units are abbreviated only when there is a numeral before them with one space between.
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org