Business Writing

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Syntax Training | Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

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October 20, 2012


Lynn Hare

"Do not use an acronym or initialism without defining it first, like this: Association of Legal Administrators (ALA)."

Lynn, I had an instructor or two ask us to write the initialism followed by its definition, like this: ALA (Association of Legal Administrators)

Which is preferable?

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Lynn. Thanks for your question! It inspired me to pull out my reference guides to do further checking.

You will see that I added a point to Rule 2 above. Beyond that, these references all recommend using the abbreviated form in parentheses AFTER the spelled out version: "Microsoft Manual of Style," "Garner's Modern American Usage," and "The Gregg Reference Manual."


George Raymond

Contrary to what their users think, abbreviations slow down the reader, who has to stop and decode them.

On the plus side: People abbreviate the terms they use most, so when you're new to a business area, abbreviations tend to flag what's important.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

George, thanks for sharing those important points.


Nick Wright

Great article. But I would be even more diligent in weeding out acronyms from writing. Here are some observations.

1. Use the shortened key word form. After writing the phrase full, include in brackets the key shortened word: Examples:

- Federal Housing Authority (Authority)
- American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (Society)
- Association of Legal Administrators (Association)

This rule removes at least half the acronyms used in the text.

2. Keep acronyms in documents to fewer than 1 in 100 words. This 1 percent limit is a good discipline for any writer.

3. Don’t think because you have defined the acronym once people will know it the next time they read it, especially if you are using several in a document.

4. Remember that people don’t read all documents from the start to the finish. Often people refer to a specific section of a document to find the information they want. Then they might come across an acronym defined in a previous section and so have no idea what it means.

5. You have to be careful when you define your audience. Often, non-Americans – especially on the internet – read articles such as yours. And although as a non-American I understand AIDS, HIV and ATM, I don’t know FICA and ROTC. In organizations, people assume everyone else knows the same acronyms. On my writing courses, I ask people to write down 20 acronyms widely used in their organization. Many people (not the techies) struggle to find 20. When they compare lists, they soon discover how many acronyms their colleagues do not know.

We’ve tackled this issue in our StyleWriter plain English editing software. The program highlights all (except the universally known) abbreviations and acronyms to encourage writers to edit them from their writing. We then suggests ways of keeping them to a minimum in text – along the lines of your article.

Our professional edition of StyleWriter has a unique feature of listing the acronyms used, the frequency of use and the percentage total. So for your article, the program analysed acronym use as:

CAS = 2
EC = 2
SBAR = 2
ALA = 1
CRM = 1
HIV = 1
NIH = 1

12 Acronyms – 9 unique – 1.8% of document

From these statistics (produced for any document checked) the writer can review the acronyms used, edit those that only occur once and keep the essential acronyms under 1 percent of the document.

If you or your readers want to try StyleWriter on documents, there are demos and a free 14-day trial at

Nick Wright – Designer of StyleWriter editing software

Jennifer Ansell

Hello Lynn, Thank you for this article on a subject that gets me every time. And, to my surprise, in your common usage examples, I recognized all but the first (FICA) and really only know the second (ROTC) from doing cross-word puzzles. Similarly I received an email from England that contained several acronyms that I had to look up. Business correspondence, as it circles the globe, should take into consideration that ATM may not mean the same thing in Malawi as it does in the United States.

Cathy Miller

You have hit upon one of my biggest pet peeves, Lynn. I spent 30+ years in an industry (healthcare/insurance) that never found an acronym it didn't love. I used to ask users to define the acronym for me (what it was short for). You'd be surprised how often they did not know.

We get so comfortable in the shortened form that we forget not everyone knows the same acronyms. The internet and social media added a whole other element.

P.S. For some reason the Twitter sign-in is not working

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hello, Nick. Thank you for taking the time to list such excellent suggestions and tell us about your useful product.

I believe writers must be cautious with using the shortened keyword form. "Authority" will not necessarily be clearer to readers than "FHA." Also, in online documents "FHA" optimizes search engine recognition, whereas a general keyword like "Authority" does not. Still, I can imagine situations in which that approach makes sense.

I appreciate your reminding us about global readers. When I mentioned "FICA" and other common abbreviations, I intended a US audience. Interestingly, even people in human resources and accounting in the US who live and breathe "FICA," are likely not to know that it stands for "Federal Insurance Contributions Act." It is simply "FICA."

Again, thanks for your helpful comments and the example from your product.


Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Jennifer. Great point!

"ATM" is an interesting example to choose. In the US, many people who would instantly recognize "ATM" would pause and wonder about "automated teller machine." When writing for Malawians and others around the globe, everything changes.


Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Cathy. Similar to your experience, sometimes in writing classes of people in the same work group, I find they do not know one another's acronyms. Yet they work in the same group doing the same thing!

Thank you for letting me know about the Twitter sign-in problem. Last week I myself could not sign in for days. I will add a help ticket about the problem.

Thanks for dropping by.



Lynn, thank you! "Aproach" in second paragraf typo or not? :)

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Vladimir, thank you for pointing out the typo. I have corrected it.

I always perform a grammar and spellcheck for my blog posts, of course, but I added that comment later. I hate when that happens!


Marcia Yudkin


I agree wholeheartedly with your advice about acronyms. However, here's the exception that proves the rule. The headline of an ad for an auto body shop:

TLC for your BMW
ASAP without the BS.

Very effective, in my opinion!

Marcia Yudkin

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Great exception, Marcia! Thanks for sharing it.

The writer knew the audience and assumed they would appreciate it.


David Richardson

As a Brit I've always loved IRA in American! For British people, of course, it means only one thing: the Irish Republican Army!

David Richardson

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Thanks for the wonderful example, David. For us Americans it means Individual Retirement Account, of course.


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