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Acronyms and SMEs–Help!

Tim wrote today with an acronym situation he would like to resolve. What do you think about his desire to spell out acronyms and initialisms, even when writing for SMEs (subject-matter experts)? 

Here is his message:

I read your blog on acronyms this morning and agreed with all the points. After all, I've been a tech writer for more than 30 years.

Maybe that time in the business makes my mind warp at times. I work with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) experts and system integrators. I use short sentences and format to keep their stuff from becoming jargon.

The problem is that I get situations where the list of acronyms can rival or even surpass the document, and my colleagues complain about the spelled out acronyms. I've become sympathetic that there are communities of interest (COIs) where the expertise is so high that spelling out an acronym makes a presentation less, not more legible because these people "think in code."

I've experimented with pop-up text for acronyms, but I can't let go of the gospel that acronyms have to be spelled out on first use and compiled in a list, usually an appendix. I have trouble making a convention where certain acronyms don't need to be defined because I can't take the word of my co-workers for granted, even if they might be right.

What would you do if you worked in such a highly technical environment and needed to create consistent, correct technical documents? 

Please share your advice for Tim. Should he ignore the "gospel" that acronyms have to be spelled out on first use? Should he experiment with letting some acronyms and initialisms stand alone? 


Here are some of my other posts on acronyms:

Acronyms Do Not Comfort, Doc
CEO Is Not an Acronym!
When Your COB Is My EOD
NLT: Another Abbreviation to Avoid
Ban Acronyms From Holiday Parties

Syntax Training

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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.

15 comments on “Acronyms and SMEs–Help!”

  • Spell them out on first mention, please, unless you are absolutely sure that everybody knows what they mean. Acronyms abound, and some have the same set of initials. Clarity is the safer way.

  • I agree with KL’s comment above. The list of other posts on acronyms reminded me that in my previous job in the lighting industry, “COB” stood for “Chip on Board,” a type of LED (or should I say light-emitting diode). There’s just too high of a chance that someone won’t know what the acronym means; it is so much safer to write it out at least once first. Maybe the appendix is not necessary- I don’t work in a role that requires formal documents like that, though, so I wouldn’t want to speak to that without more knowledge. Either way, I appreciate how thoroughly Tim is thinking this through!

  • Lynn, your point is well taken: I first thought this post was about small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In a longer document, an alternative to spelling out every abbrevation at first use is an abbreviation list at the start of the document – and NOT at the end, where readers may discover it only after struggling through the document’s abbreviations.

  • “even when writing for SMEs (subject-matter experts)?”

    Shouldn’t SMEs be within the brackets preceded by the definition?

    E.g., … subject-matter experts (SMEs)…

  • Even if I’m working in an IT (Italian or Information Technology?) company, in my mind, SME means “Sistema Monetario Europeo”, because of my school memories.
    But…Google is my friend: by counting how many times the acronym vs the spelled form is used, and thinking about the audience of my document, I may find a balance.

  • I used to play a little game in my corporate days. Hey, you have to find your fun where you can. πŸ™‚ I would ask colleagues who used acronyms to tell me what the acronym stood for. Many could not tell me.

    I suspect some of the readers complaining about the spelled-out version may be in the same category. To me, if you spell it out and follow it with the acronym – e.g., subject-matter experts (SMEs)- the acronym lover can skim over the longer version to embrace their beloved acronym. πŸ˜‰

  • Thank you, KL, Lisa, George, Chanaka, Roberto, Kristyna, Cathy, and M for your comments. I’m sure Tim will enjoy your commiserating with him.

    Most of you suggested that he spell out every acronym or abbreviation the first time, thus following the well-known writing rule. I tend to agree.

    Yet Tim suggests that his may be a group for whom “spelling out an acronym makes a presentation less, not more legible.” I think that concern is worth addressing. We must keep our audience in mind.

    I like two of Tim’s solutions. First, it’s a great idea to have a list of acronyms and their spelled-out versions at the end of the document (or the beginning, as George suggested). If the list is in an appendix, it must be easy to flip or click to.

    I love the idea of inserting screen tips that one can access by hovering over the acronyms. A reader who needs clarification of the acronym need only place the mouse over it. Of course, that approach only works if people are reading the document on a screen. But an appendix could meet the needs of those who read a printed copy.

    Regarding my use of “SMEs” in the title, that was intentional. The title needed help, right?

    Chanaka, one recommended way of spelling out acronyms is to place the spelled-out version after the acronym–especially when people know the acronym better than the spelled-out version. Example: Lisa’s LED (light-emitting diode).

    Thanks for taking the time to comment!


  • What an appropriate commentary!
    I vote for writing out the acronym at first mention OR using some kind of appendix. As has been stated, you never know who’s going to read the text – now or in the future.
    I am a freelance translator and encounter this phenomenon quite often, especially in scholarly articles.
    Writing out the acronym also saves time for the reader. Imagine reading a page or two, thinking it means “A”, but then a sentence pops up where “A” doesn’t make sense, thus giving way to meaning “B”. Now the reader must re-read the first section in order to understand the “new” meaning.
    To sum up, a perfect example: as this post was sitting in my inbox, I saw the acronym “SME” and immediately thought “small and medium-sized enterprises” πŸ™‚ Thank goodness for the explanation!

  • In my world, COIs are Certificates of Insurance. I would definitely spell them out once whether it be at first mention or some kind of list or appendix.

  • I work in the hospital ED (Emergency Department, not erectile dysfunction!) Our company has an online database of approved medical abbreviations and acronyms (if it’s not in there, you “can’t” use it). It’s a helpful version of the appendix idea, standardized for everyone in the company. If I need to use a long medical term repeatedly, I would still spell it out the first time. (Perhaps such a tool would be helpful for Tim’s case.)

    There’s also a body of abbreviations and acronyms standardized within the whole medical field that I would never feel the need to spell out the first time (eg. the pt for the patient, EKG/ECG for electrocardiogram), and the short versions save a lot of time. My audience is other medical professionals and even the newbies are expected to know these. Spelling them out consistently, or even spelling them out the first time would definitely annoy people.

    Nurses (Doctors, etc.) do a lot of writing in patient charts, and they can be so lazy! Both in terms of bothering with complete sentences and in terms of acronyms and abbreviations. Sometimes they’re barely intelligible, even to those who know the “code”. Yet patient charts are legal documents that can be used in court! I’m with you on bucking the system! When in doubt spell it out–the jury will thank you.

  • Laura, thank you for your excellent examples. I appreciate your taking the time to share them.

    Your situation has several parallels to Tim’s. I hope he finds nuggets in your comment that he can use in his work.


  • Hi Alfred,

    Interesting question. I intentionally used “your taking” to focus on the time Laura took. I could have used “you taking” (your Number 3) to emphasize Laura herself taking the time. Both are correct; the difference between them is subtle, and many people are not aware of it.

    In your examples, “taking of time” (Number 1) is very awkward and therefore not appropriate. “Time taken” (Number 2) is unusual–not wrong, just unexpected. In Number 4 the structure “kindness to share them” is odd, but you could confidently write “kindness in sharing them.”

    I did not research the structures you used in Numbers 1, 2, and 4. I am simply describing the way they sound to my North American ear.


  • Lynn
    Thank you for your website and the golden kernels that you kindly share with us.
    May I ask a question (another, lol) regarding your last comment that included “I appreciate your taking the time to share them”.
    Would this also be appropriate or similar?
    1) I appreciate your taking of time to share them.
    2) I appreciate your time taken to share them.
    3) I appreciate you taking the time to share them.
    4) I appreciate your kindness to share them.
    My question is about the word “your” in the context given. What do you think?
    Thank you, Alfred

  • Acronyms are very useful in the workplace as it saves time. But as a lawyer, I find I have to spell everything out continually.

    Generally, if there’s an acronym that I know will be continually used for the case, I make sure the client knows in the beginning that it is something that will be used often (a subtle hint that they should learn it).

    After I mention it, the client typically only asks one or two more times, from then I can use the acronym freely.

    My tool is fair warning.

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