Should I write PDE or partial differential equation in the body of a mathematics paper? In a similar way, should I expand Dirichlet-to-Neumann map or write DN map or DtN map?

A somewhat related question Can I use abbreviations in the title of a research paper? considers only the title; I am more interested in the rest of the paper.

  • 5
    @AnderBiguri most journals I've come across say you shoudl never use an abbreviation without defining it first (from which it follows that you shouln't use them in titles and probably not in the abstract).
    – Chris H
    Sep 18 '15 at 15:27
  • 2
    Whenever doubt, just use the full expression first "Dirichlet-to-Neumann map (DN map)", and then you can use freely the DN map later. If you mention this only one, there is no point of abbreviation anyway.
    – Greg
    Sep 18 '15 at 19:38
  • 1
    I think you should consider whether the abbreviation is known more broadly than your immediate field. For example, as an electrical engineer, I knew "PDE" the moment I saw it, you should have no fear that using that particular abbreviation will limit your audience. "DtN map", on the other hand, excludes outsiders.
    – Ben Voigt
    Sep 18 '15 at 20:41
  • 1
    I'd be wary of using undefined abbreviations, even if they are common in your field. Your paper may be of interest to an outsider that has the technical knowledge to understand it, but may lack the culture of specific abbreviations.
    – Davidmh
    Sep 18 '15 at 22:57
  • 1
    Just spell it out. Ink is cheap. Concision is not a virtue.
    – JeffE
    Sep 19 '15 at 1:59

I use four factors to decide when an abbreviation should be used:

  • Is the "thing" known principally or exclusively by its abbreviation? DNA, for example, is almost always called "DNA"; no one mentally expands it to deoxyribonucleic acid every time they encounter it. In cases like these, I would find it off-putting if you insisted on spelling it out; in fact, it even seems a little weird to define it as in "We extracted deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, by...." I suspect that PDEs are also treated similarly, at least for some audiences.

  • Do you want to draw attention to one component of the abbreviation? If, for some reason, I were writing about the acidity of DNA or the partial-ness of PDEs, I would spell the words out. Otherwise, they can be abbreviated.

  • Do I want the reader to treat the term as a single entity? Abbreviations tend to reify a concept. Mentioning rodents of unusual size makes one think about mice and rats that happen to be at the far ends of a bell curve: they're rodents, but rather large (or small) ones. If we call them ROUSes instead, then one begins to think about them as a separate thing. What are the properties of an ROUS? Why are they here? Why aren't they "normal" rats?

  • How often is the term used? Each definition (and reference) of an abbreviation incurs a little bit of mental overhead. If you're only using the term occasionally, just write the words out (unless #1 applies). This is particularly true if the mentions are far apart. Pay attention to this when editing, since you may add or delete a lot of the mentions.


If the term is sufficiently long and sufficiently frequently used, it is reasonable to use abbrevations, as it may be very helpful for reading. I once reviewed a paper that was almost unreadable due to using some very long and complicated term all over the place (and I recommended introducing an abbrevation). For example, compare the following:

Using a solver for partial differential equations to solve a problem after applying the Dirichlet-to-Neumann map was first suggested in Ref. 42.

Using a PDE solver for a DtN-mapped problem was first suggested in Ref. 42.

However, you should explain the abbrevation the first time you are using it, e.g.:

partial differential equation (PDE)

The only exception from this are abbrevations that are extremely common like JPEG or Laser, i.e., abbrevations you could also use in the title of a paper. Depending on your field, PDE might be such an abbrevation.

As a sidenote: I recommend to decide about the usage of abbrevations and explaining them in a piecewise manner. For example if you use a term as follows:

  • once in section 1,
  • not at all in section 2,
  • a lot in section 3,
  • not at all in section 4,
  • a lot in section 5 and 6.

I recommend not to use or introduce the abbrevation in section 1, but only use it in sections 3, 5 and 6, introducing it when it’s first used in section 3 and 5, respectively. Depending on how likely it is that somebody reads section 6 without reading section 5, it may also be wise to introduce it again at the beginning of section 6.

  • 12
    I rented a satellite phone with a manual that kept talking about the subscriber identity module. It took be a little while to understand what they were talking about.
    – gerrit
    Sep 18 '15 at 12:42

As a fellow mathematician, you can certainly use PDE without further explanation anywhere in the paper (title, abstract, body) but I would write "the DtN map (Dirichlet-to-Neumann)" in the first use and then DtN as suggested by the other answer. This is presuming you're submitting to a math journal.

  • 2
    A thought. Is there another branch of mathematics that used the abbreviation PDE for something else? Like positive definite eigenvalue problem?
    – GEdgar
    Sep 18 '15 at 13:55
  • @GEdgar It's easy to imagine an applied math paper that uses PDEs to model PDEs - e.g. pulse detonation engines, photon detection efficiency, potential daily exposure (to radiation, etc), phosphodiesterases, ....
    – alephzero
    Sep 18 '15 at 14:08

My personal rule is always explain the abbreviation first, even for stuff that is supposed to be "known". As mentioned in the comments, the same abbreviation can have several different meanings, even in the same general field.

Another issue is not to use several abbreviations in the same sentence, which is even worse if some of them are similar... the objective is to make the reader understand, not get him dizzy with so many letters :)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.