Thursday, 31 January 2019

Why use an acronym when decent words will do?

"They are detached from the language
and inflated like little balloons."
- Wolcott Gibbs

Why do so many so-called writers fill their screeds with acronyms and neologisms when decent and real words will do instead? One simple answer: pretentiousness.

The "nonce-word" or -phrase may be, rarely, one constructed simply to serve a need of the moment, but invariably the motive is an attempt to pass off pedestrian thought as profundity. Unfortunately, this is to reverse cause and effect: as the authors of one of the greatest writing guides warn: "The writer should not indulge in these unless he is quite sure he is a good writer." [Emphasis mine.]

Too often today, however, the usage only confirms the opposite.

A repast of neologisms and acronyms aplenty across a writer's prose -- an alphabet soup of EBITDAs, ATMs and MOBIEs poured out across the page -- confirm only that he is neither the writer, nor the thinker, he deems himself to be. He dreams of the heights, and very publicly attains not even the lowlands of mere adequacy.

Acronym over-use is, perhaps, the worst of these crimes.
Even the most knowledgeable audience needs you to define each acronym right away, since some acronyms have double meanings even within a single field. If you must use an acronym or difficult term, it's best to define it the first time you say it. My advice: avoid acronyms altogether.
    When I'm baffled by an unclear acronym, I jokingly tell people, "I'm in the SAA."
    Then I go silent, to make them ask me what it means. "I belong to the Society Against Acronyms."
"Write things out," advise those sound advisers Strunk and White
Not everyone knows that MADD means Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and even if everyone did, there are babies being born every minute who will someday encounter the name for the first time. They deserve to see the words, not simply the initials....
    Many shortcuts are self-defeating; they waste the reader's time instead of conserving it. There are all sorts of rhetorical stratagems and devices that attract writers who hope to be pithy, but most of them are simply bothersome. The longest way around is [often] the shortest way home, and the one truly reliable shortcut in writing is to choose words that are strong and surefooted to carry readers on their way. 
Oddly enough, it turns out that these pieces of pestilence, these admissions of writer's sloth, are relatively new accretions upon civilised life. Like many big bad modern things, they grew to prominence with the rise of big bad modern government, the rise of the aptly-christened FDR ushering in the rise of the many alphabet-soup departments to which his "New Deal" gave birth -- and which, in their obese adolescence, gave aid and comfort to much waffle bolstered by this form of over-capitalised pretension.
The condensation of a word or phrase into a pronounceable initialism (acronym) seems to be a fairly recent invention, identified as being American [declares the textbook]. 
An acronym is a nuance of word‐group abbreviation, wherein the word group (usually a single entity or noun, but sometimes a verb) is pronounceable. The neologism is usually operationally more valuable (and ideally, easier on the ear and tongue) than the parent word group. The line between simple initialism and pronounceable acronym can be indistinct (e.g. ELISA) although general usage favours the case for simple initialism. Fowler labelled abbreviations ‘curtailed words’ and noted the special circumstances of acronyms.

‘Another way of forming curtailed words is to combine initial letters, a method now so popular, especially in America, that a word ‘acronym’ has been coined for it. The first world war produced a few; Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), Dora (Defence of the Realm Act), Wrens (Women's Royal Naval Service)...'
... Implicit in Fowler's interpretation of the acronym is the pronounceability as a word, although not all authorities have demanded this test...
The practice of acronymology is far older than its representation by a word. Students have long made mnemonic initialisms to help retain tedious information. Thus the six critical elements of life, referring back to the periodic table, are CHNOPS, which, if pronounced as ‘chin‐ups’, qualifies it as an acronym. To locate the femoral artery generations of medical students have depended on NAVEL, going from lateral to medial under the right inguinal ligament: nerve, artery, vein, empty space, and lymphatic. The corporate world and scientists were doing this sort of thing early in the 20th century, but the first acknowledgement of this practice as a general tool in language with the neologism acronym was 1943. Defining examples in the Oxford English Dictionary include MASH (mobile army surgical hospital), Nabisco (National Biscuit Company) and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation).
The Second World War era provided several useful and often colourful acronyms, including SNAFU (situation normal, all fouled up), RADAR (radio detecting and ranging), and SONAR (sound navigation range). With their incorporation into everyday speech, radar, sonar and other terms have become so commonplace that they have lost their capitalisation, as if they have become less overtly acronyms. 
Acronyms are not un-useful, and if the abbreviation is already well-known, (BBC, CIA, DNA, NATO, OECD) may be well used.
However, there is widespread evidence of overuse in technical writing and it may be wise to follow some simple rules for "acronymology":

  • An acronym is at least three letters.
  • The word must be easily pronounceable.
  • It must simplify communication.
  • An acronym should have utility beyond a single paper/report.
  • Spell out the complete term at first usage.
  • More than one new neologism or novel abbreviation per paper burdens the reader.

Do not put the reader in the position of having to refer back to a key of novel abbreviations. It is preferable to spell out most repetitive phrases...
Some acronyms and initialisms fit the needs of the moment, to compress a paper or abstract, whereas others are destined for longevity. Overuse of abbreviations for the writer's convenience or for the constraints of word counts, generally obfuscates information. 
The advice of the writers' writers: "Stick to words when you can. Acronyms make writing easier but reading harder. Your shortcut is the reader’s hindrance."


  1. I notice that in 2018 many American authors, writing for an international audience still write 9/11. {Which in NZ was 12/9}. It's perhaps about time they used an expansion - twin towers of World Trade Center in New York destroyed by terrorists flying aeroplanes into it, in September 2001.

    Laser and Scuba are good acronyms now

  2. There are some reasons for acronyms in technical geological writing. Trichloroethene takes up more space than TCE, and the two words mean the same thing. CL and 5YR 4/4 convey a surprising amount of precise meaning to a field geologist in a short space. Similarly, mechanics abbreviate the names of various components, knitters abbreviate stitch names, and computer technicians abbreviate the names of standard programs and components. The issue is, in each case the acronym is used to provide precise, complex data to a specific audience. I can know that a field geologist understands what "ls" means; the loss of information is nil, but the space savings (important when you're hanging by your fingernails on a rock ledge) is significant.

  3. The book I gave you is not good for this (and it's structure and organization could be better). But it has some excellent and eye-opening content if you can get past that.


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