Hey fellow grammar nerds! I need opinions. When using a compound adjective that contains an acronym, where do you place the hyphen and parentheses? I am describing a gene which contains cAMP response element (CRE). So is it:

1) cAMP response element- (CRE) containing gene 2) cAMP response element (CRE)-containing gene 3) cAMP response element-containing (CRE) gene

or something else? Thanks!

  • I'd recommend you define the abbreviation or initialism "CRE" once, at the top of the paper, then use it adjectively throughout, as in CRE-containing gene. – Dan Bron May 6 '16 at 17:13
  • @Dan good suggestion, however I'm only using this abbreviation a couple of times and the rest of the paper contains MANY abbreviations, so I think that would be a waste. – Jake May 6 '16 at 17:25
  • Maybe a glossary then? Or maybe just introduce it as briefly as possible in an independent sentence just before its first use. It's just so awkward to try to include the full, unabbreviated term, the abbreviated term, a dash, and parentheses. – Dan Bron May 6 '16 at 17:27
  • 1
    If you are not using the initialism enough times to justify defining it just once at the beginning of the paper (or the beginning of one section, or the beginning of one paragraph), then what do you gain by using it at all? Just use the full term. Or if you think that people are more likely to recognize the initialism, then why is it a problem to define it once for all? – PellMel May 6 '16 at 17:47

When you wish to mention it a second time, you will use

CRE-containing gene

Therefore, on first mention, you want to use what will lead you to that, which is your second choice:

cAMP response element (CRE)-containing gene

In the first choice, you have separated the abbreviation from its meaning with a hyphen and neglected to include a hyphen between the last element of the noun (CRE) and the participle (containing). In the third, you have included the abbreviation after a word that is not part of the abbreviation.

The only additional consideration is whether you should use a one-en dash (option-hyphen) rather than a hyphen following (CRE):

cAMP response element (CRE)–containing gene

Many style guides recommend the one-en when the first part of the compound contains multiple words that are not connected by hyphens, and I tend to do that when editing. However, the slight difference in length is often lost on readers and so that issue is not as crucial as just making sure the abbreviation follows the meaning immediately and that the hyphen or en-dash is properly placed. Again, that describes your second choice.

Here's a link to a page that refers to "Photos taken with a Global Positioning System (GPS)-enabled device": http://www.forensicsciencesimplified.org/digital/how.html, and a link to another that does not capitalize "global positioning device," which, IMO, is the better way to go: https://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P3-1613660681.html. There is no need to capitalize the first letters of a common noun that is followed by an acronym.

  • Thanks a lot, your answer is very detailed and clear and is EXACTLY what I was looking for :) – Jake May 6 '16 at 19:32
  • you're welcome. Glad it helps – user66965 May 6 '16 at 19:53

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