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UAs Make You Look Bad

How did you feel when you read that title? Puzzled? Curious? Irritated? Perhaps I lost potential readers who did not recognize UAs, didn't want to take time to figure it out, and moved on to another website. 

UAs = undefined abbreviations, an abbreviation I made up to make a point. It's like TLA, three-letter acronym. (But TLA itself is an initialism, not an acronym. Find out why.) 

Last night I visited the website of an association I am a new member of. I wanted to find out whether any events were coming up that I might add to my calendar. 

These abbreviations in the event listings were for sister organizations of my association:




I was not sure what any of the three stood for, although I had an educated guess for SPJ. Clicking on the event links and reading detailed descriptions of the events did not help. For all three, I had to leave the site and use Google to find out what the abbreviations stood for. 

Who is at fault? Would you blame me for not recognizing Social Media Club, Society of Professional Journalists, and Asian American Journalists Association? Or should the writers have helped me out?  

In business writing classes, when I suggest that people spell out or define their abbreviations and acronyms, occasionally someone asks, "Why should I do that? My readers OUGHT to know what these stand for." Yes, perhaps I ought to have recognized those associations by their initials. But I didn't. And I am not alone. 

It takes just seconds to spell out abbreviations. If you do it just once on a web page or in a message, you can ensure that you are communicating with your readers rather than frustrating them. Here are three easy ways:

Better Business Writing (BBW) 

Better Business Writing [followed in the next sentence with BBW]

BBW (Better Business Writing) 

Yes, some abbreviations are so well known that you may not need to spell them out, depending on your audience. The Associated Press Stylebook gives CIA, FBI, and GOP as such examples but adds, "That does not mean that its [the abbreviation's] use should be automatic." 

Undefined abbreviations can make you look bad because they suggest that you either did not think about your audience or did not care. 

What is your view? Have acronyms and abbreviations confused you? Or do you like to close your email with BR?

Best regards,

Syntax Training 

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
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. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

13 comments on “UAs Make You Look Bad”

  • In every language and domain, people abbreviate key terms. Such abbreviations are clear to people in the domain. So they stop defining them. This is a problem for newcomers – such as website visitors and people from elsewhere in the same organization – who don’t know the abbreviations.

    Such abbreviations do have one benefit: they flag the key terms that the newcomer needs to learn right away.

    BTW, even GOP is unclear outside the US.


  • I have found the best tip for avoiding this confusion is to start by defining the reader. The moment that definition includes newcomers or outsiders, you know you will have to spell out the meaning of familiar terms.

    By the way, George is right – GOP is very unfamiliar here in the UK.

  • I think this is a big problem in business, where there are many acronyms unique to each company. It’s not very welcoming to new employees, who could be the audience of any written (or oral) communication. I agree that it’s always a good idea to spell it out the first time an acronym is used.

  • Oindroi, thanks for echoing George’s important point about newcomers. As you probably noted, that was my problem: being a newcomer to the group. Now I will instantly recognize those abbreviations. But more newcomers will follow me.

    As for UK, it’s probably wise to spell it out on first use. But I would guess that adults around the world would recognize it.


  • Cindy, I agree. New employees have so much new information thrown at them. It’s a shame to make their situation more challenging.

    I went to a live comedy show two weeks ago. The opening comic used a three-letter abbreviation during his routine. Some people were laughing. But others, like my husband and me, were whispering to each other, asking what the abbreviation meant. What a waste of humor–and the division of the audience into those who are hip and those who aren’t.


  • Lynn, I recently found your blog and really haven’t been able to stop reading it (I read all of the archives in just a couple of days)! I’ve found all of your advice to be not only practical but logical and very easy to understand – in fact, even easier than some websites that are promoting Plain Language!

    I’m not sure if this is the appropriate venue, but I’d like to make a blog entry request: would you please give us some tips for Email communication with customers whose native language may not be English?

    Thank you so much for your consideration and for this invaluable professional resource!

  • Alicia, thank you for your lovely feedback. I am delighted that you have found this blog helpful.

    Regarding emails for people in other parts of the globe, I suggest you start with this blog post about opening sentences:

    Also, please scroll through the subject category “Global Communication” in the right column of the site.

    I have covered many aspects of international communication, but I don’t believe I have pulled them all together in one blog post. I will consider that possibility.

    Thanks again for your kinds words.


  • Thanks so much for pointing me in the right direction, Lynn. I look forward to your next blog entry, whatever the topic may be! – Alicia

  • Heck, I’m an American and only recently (within the past couple of years) learned what GOP stands for!

    I appreciate this article, Lynn. I recently worked with a client to revise their organization’s policies and procedures. The original documents included many, many mystery acronyms that I did not know, since I had nothing more than a general understanding of the industry. Google was my friend during that project, but even then I had to make some “educated guesses” about which Google definition was correct.

    The use of UAs (smile) may also have the unintended consequence of making the reader feel stupid – “I obviously should know what that means. Why don’t I?” Yikes!

  • Thanks for stopping by, Alicia, Leigh, and Andrew.

    Leigh, thanks for sharing your experience. Your comment about making the reader feel stupid reminded me of my comedy show experience. (See my earlier comment.) It’s no fun to feel dumb!

    Andrew, thanks for the good laugh!


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