Acronyms Make Me Work Too Hard!

What do writers have against me and other readers? Why do they splatter acronyms and initialisms across their messages to us without telling us what they mean?

Let me pause here for a couple of definitions:

A true acronym is a word formed from the first letters of a series of words, such as PAC for "political action committee," and ASCAP for American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

An initialism is an abbreviation that is formed from the first letters of a series of words but is not pronounced as a word, for example, FHA for Federal Housing Authority and EOD for "end of day." People refer to these as acronyms, but technically they are not.

Some abbreviations fall into both categories because people say them both ways, for example, ARM for "adjustable-rate mortgage" and IRA for "individual retirement account."

Back to the problem of us readers having to work too hard:

In emails I received this week, CAS, CMMS, CRM, HVTN, IRB, NIH, and SBAR appeared without spelled out versions. What do these mean?

I do recognize IRB and NIH in context (Institutional Review Board and National Institutes of Health), and I believe CRM has to do with managing customers. But I don't know what CAS, CMMS, HVTN, and SBAR stand for. Should I have to guess or do Internet research to avoid remaining ignorant?

Feeling the need to educate myself, I went online to confirm that CRM refers to Customer Relationship Management. HVTN stands for HIV Vaccine Trials Network, and the acronym SBAR refers to Situation, Background, Assessment, and Recommendation, a communication technique. If I am guessing correctly, CMMS stands for Computerized Maintenance Management System. I am still not certain about CAS; even knowing the context in which it was used, I cannot define it.

Why do writers create work for us? In a business writing course, the same writers would probably tell me they want to get better results from their writing.

One way to get results is to communicate clearly–to avoid making readers work to discern your meaning. When it comes to clarity with abbreviations, I suggest the rules below.

Rules for Using Acronyms and Other Abbreviations

1. Do not use an abbreviated form in your signature block. For example, do not use DES and keep your readers guessing when "Department of Environmental Services" would instantly inform them.

2. Do not use an acronym or initialism without defining it first, like this: Association of Legal Administrators (ALA). Note: The Associated Press Stylebook does not use this approach. It simply uses the abbreviation soon after the spelled out use. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends the approach I suggest, but it also includes an example with the abbreviation first and the spelled out version in parentheses.

3. For long electronic documents, include hyperlinks to spelled out versions of abbreviated forms. That way, readers will not need to scroll up and go back to confirm a term.

4. Do not use an abbreviation if you are using a term only once, twice, or even three times. For example, do not use EC for Executive Council if the term comes up twice in your message. There is no point in making readers recall what EC means for such little payoff. Remember: You are not required to use abbreviations–you can spell things out whenever you want to. Note: The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using an abbbreviation only if the term appears "roughly five times or more within an article or chapter."

5. DO use an abbreviated form when it has become more common than its spelled out version. Examples in the United States: FICA, ROTC, AIDS, HIV, ATM. You may add the spelled out version after the abbreviated form if there is a chance a reader will not recognize the short form.

6. If an abbreviated form is commonly used but not universally recognized in your organization, include the spelled out version too. 

Do you have a rule to add? I welcome your input. Feel free to rant too, but please don't slam us with acronyms!

Lynn
Syntax Training

 

16 COMMENTS

  1. “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?

  2. 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.”

    Lynn

  3. 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.

  4. 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
    ASCAP = 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 http://www.editorsoftware.com

    Nick Wright – Designer of StyleWriter editing software

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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

  9. 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

  10. 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!

    Lynn

  11. Lynn,

    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

  12. 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

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