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Pvt. Smith or PVT Smith? Abbreviating Military Ranks in Archival Descriptions

By Andrew Harman

Archival description is at its best when it follows prescribed standards and provides researchers with useful tools to uncover information about the primary sources they hope to find. Professional standards, such as DACS, aid in this endeavor. However, it is often up to institutions to implement their own standards for niche descriptive necessities. This article discusses my experience with creating one such standard for military collections.

In 2018, I took over stewardship of the relatively new Center for American War Letters Archives, which was established in 2013 and was still navigating its early growing pains. The Archives, based in the Leatherby Libraries at Chapman University, conducts its mission of preserving primarily military-related materials. As the name suggests, the majority of the collection consists of correspondence between servicemembers overseas and their loved ones back home during America’s major military conflicts.

As I came on board and assessed the situation, I found the Archives needed some help. There were limited descriptions, ad hoc workflows, and some general disarray (though it admittedly could have been much worse were it not for some of the efforts of those that came before). Among the projects I took on to aid the emergence and professionalization of the archives were the development of policies and procedures, manuals and forms, and the standardization of descriptive practices.

In archives brimming with military terminology, such as unit and rank names, acronyms, and abbreviations, some standardization and understanding of this terminology is important for archives staff and researchers. Specifically, the abbreviation of military ranks is important to the description of each individual collection, as incorporating the appropriate rank abbreviations provides accuracy as well as a show of respect for the servicemembers’ earned status. After some discussion between myself and colleagues in Chapman’s Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections and Archives, a simple standard was developed, though it ultimately did not last.

The standard upon which we initially agreed followed what I’ve more recently discovered is the norm in other disciplines. The Chicago Manual of Style, AP, and even the National Geographic style guide agree that colloquial (what they term “traditional” or “civilian”) version of rank abbreviations are acceptable and preferred for journalistic articles or writings for other disciplines. Our first standard followed that principle of traditional abbreviations, focusing on the way US Army ranks were abbreviated during World War II. This could be seen as traditional and commonplace to the layperson, as opposed to current abbreviations used by the armed services. An example would be the former abbreviation for Private (“Pvt.”) versus the current “PVT.” The former is more colloquial and conventional, and was used during WWII, which is the time period represented by our largest collection of materials. This form is even currently in use by the US Marine Corps.

However, instances of ambiguity lingered as we implemented this standard. For instance, some ranks did not fit the mold and have only modern abbreviations. Additionally, the arrangement and description of a collection in a finding aid is not necessarily bound by historical, academic, or journalistic writing standards. Taking this into consideration, I reassessed our standard to consider accuracy and timeliness, as well as the goal of honoring the proper rank of a soldier.

After seeking further counsel, I decided that it is not incumbent upon us to oversimplify our descriptions for our researchers by writing them (and the abbreviations within them) in the most palatable and colloquial way. Furthermore, we are not writing descriptions only for modern standards. To borrow a phrase from my colleague and mentor formerly with Chapman, Rand Boyd, our descriptions are “not for today’s researcher but for the researcher a hundred years from now.” We need something that is specific and accurate, holding the weight of an informative record, and that cannot be seen as obsolete after the passage of time.

This led me to believe that our standard should be temporally fixed. That is to say, the Archives would use the proper abbreviation which was used by a particular branch of the armed services during the time being discussed, typically that of the soldier’s/sailor’s/marine’s service. If a private in the Army served during WWII, then their rank would be abbreviated “Pvt.” If they served during the Gulf War or later, then “PVT” would be more appropriate and should be used in the description. This decision meant we needed to create a controlled vocabulary, and after some research and formatting, a spreadsheet was created to ensure this controlled vocabulary would be clear and concise.

This new standard would also address the problem of temporally unique ranks. I had a hard time reconciling our old standard of switching “PVT” to “Pvt.” when a rank like Specialist (SPC) did not exist during WWII and thus did not have a previous and similarly styled abbreviation. It would be wrong to change its abbreviation to fit a standard of something the Army never used. (A civilian abbreviation would be “Spc.” and some journalistic standards have adopted that, but it has never been used by the US Army or any other governmental institution.) By leaving everything in its own timeframe, we provide accuracy and completeness as well as respect for the servicemembers’ ranks.

Over the next hundred years, these ranks and their abbreviations will likely change again. The entire structure of the military may even change (we have a Space Force!). Therefore, I believe it is important to be accurate and not put ourselves in a position to have to change an institutionally-imposed standard on and on again down the line. Rather, we should flow with history when it comes to ranks and titles, and use the terminology of the specific time being described.

This project has required tons of research into military ranks and their abbreviations, as well as the history of various military organizations. It has been a fascinating journey, and I hope it may be as helpful to others as it has been for our institution.

This standard has been compiled in an informational spreadsheet with abbreviations, pay grades, history (when each was used), and pictures. Anyone interested in this spreadsheet is welcome to reach out to me (aharman@chapman.edu) and I would be happy to share this work. Additionally, if anyone has comments or corrections to the spreadsheet, I would be happy to hear them.


Andrew Harman is the Archivist for the Center for American War Letters Archives and the Huell Howser Archives at Chapman University in Orange, California. A graduate of Chapman’s MA in War and Society program, he is an archivist with historian roots who feels that archival access is gained through descriptive practices.

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