Glossary and acronyms in LaTeX

date: 2015-02-27

To write a glossary in LaTeX you need to use a specific packages designed for the purpose. It then allows you to define a term and its acronym in a file, then reference the item later. The first time the item is referred to the full label and acronym are displayed automatically:

United Kingdom (UK)

All subsequent times you reference the item LaTeX just the acronym is shown:


As you edit and chop and change your document structure you don’t have to worry about where the first reference is, this is tracked automatically. You also get a nice glossary page at the beginning of your document that lists all acronyms or definitions.

Getting the acronyms and glossaries working is relatively easy. In the preamble of your document, place the following code before usepackage{hyperref} to load the appropriate package:


toc places a listing for the glossary in the table of contents. makeglossaries builds the glossary list when you build the main file.

I place all my glossary items and acryonyms in a separate file (called, imaginatively, glossary.tex) so I refer to this using input where I want the glossary to be placed in the document (typically after the table of contents):


I use input{} rather than include{} so as not to force a page break.

In the glossaries.tex file I list all my glossary items and acronyms. The syntax for producing these is well documented in the LaTeX Wikibook: so I won’t reproduce that here. As an example, my glossary.tex includes:

newacronym{UK}{UK}{United Kingdom}

The first ‘{UK}’ is the label referred to later, the second ‘{UK}’ is the acronym which is printed each time you reference it, and the ‘{United Kingdom}’ is the description used in the glossary and when referenced the first time.

In my main document I can then simply refer to this listing using:


This generally worked fine, but I did struggle to produce the glossary list at the beginning of the document, despite no warnings or errors when I built the document. It traspired that there is an additional build step, like when building a bibliography:

  1. Build file.tex.

  2. Build glossary using makeglossary.

  3. Build file.tex again.

  4. (Maybe) build file.tex again.

It seems that in most LaTeX GUIs there isn’t a build option for glossaries, so you can either build the glossary from the command line or create a build button. To build from the command line, first build your .tex file, then navigate to (or open your terminal at) the folder your .tex file is located in and type:

makeglossary file

Replace file with your actual filename without an extension, then build your .tex file again (and maybe again).

If, like me, you can’t be bothered to run this command every time your glossary items change, you can add a button to most LaTeX GUIs. For example, in LaTeXilla:

  1. Open the Build > Manage Build Tools menu.

  2. Press + under ‘Personal build tools’.

  3. Enter the following details:

    • Label: Run makeglossaries

    • Description: Make glossary and acronyms (optional)

    • Extensions: .tex

    • Icon: Execute

    • Commands: makeglossaries $shortname

    • Post-processor: all-output

This adds a new button to the GUI called ‘Make glossary and acronyms’.