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!
Lastly, if you wish to brush up on your acronym knowledge, here is a list of 123 common business acronyms.