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Our Common Language?

This week I led a business writing class for two successful nonprofit organizations that focus on energy efficiency. The individuals in the class were intelligent, dedicated, and experienced in their field. These are some of their titles: business systems analyst, technology innovation lead, communications coordinator, program coordinator, project manager, controller, planning analyst, and manager of design and construction.

Like many of us, they use abbreviations and acronyms that are specific to their industry. Here are some of them:

aMW    EE    DR    RTO/ISO    NWS    SCADA    TBL    PBL    CEC    SCE    DLC    PJM    PC    ED    MPER

Do you recognize all the abbreviations above? If not, you have something in common with the class participants. They did not recognize one another’s abbreviations–despite the common industry, organizations, goals, and geographical location.

When it comes to abbreviations and acronyms, we do not speak a common language, even when we think we do. (Note: An acronym is an abbreviation that we pronounce as a word rather than letter by letter, like SCADA.) In class after class, I find that people do not recognize one another’s abbreviations–even when they work on the same team.

In many cases, no one in a group can state with certainty what the letters of an abbreviation stand for, even when they have a good idea what the abbreviation means.  (Similarly, I used the word snafu for decades without knowing it was an acronym with a salty derivation.)

We won’t stop using abbreviations and acronyms. Here is what we can do to be sure our readers understand them:

1. Spell them out the first time we use them, then follow with the abbreviation, like this: Request for Proposals (RFP).

If we used this approach consistently, fewer people would mistakenly use RFP when they are referring to a response to an RFP. (And no one would use snafu!)

Spelling out the first use is the standard approach to defining abbreviations. However, in a long document, spelling out just once will not help readers who flip to a page or screen. For long documents, use suggestions 2 and 3.

2. Electronically link the abbreviation to its definition.

3. Provide a handy glossary. Here handy means very easy to access, perhaps with definitions at the bottom of each page or on each screen.

In some cases, what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG). But when it comes to abbreviations, what your reader thinks may not be what you intend.

You may be interested in these two posts on acronyms and abbreviations.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.