Acronyms that won’t confuse your readers

Acronyms and other abbreviations let you succinctly express a concept.

But they can be a mystery to your readers.

Technically, in Australia, acronyms (scuba) belong with abbreviations (Mon.), contractions (Mr), initialisms (NSW) and symbols (km) as ‘shortened forms’.
Although there are distinct differences between the forms in their presentation and punctuation, for this article, they will all be called acronyms.

Acronyms are frequently specific to an industry sector or an organisation.
The terms (and the concepts they represent) are well understood and correctly used by the members of the group, and simplify ‘in-house’ communication.

However, confusion can arise when acronyms are used outside the group.
The term ‘TOC’ for a scientist means something completely different from what a report writer understands when using the term.
How many times have you nodded your head wisely while the salesperson chatters on using acronyms that you’re vaguely familiar with but not entirely sure about the meaning?
Often it’s easier to nod along than ask for simple, jargon-free explanations because we don’t want to appear foolish or uneducated.

We’re ‘outsiders’.

Business writers need to avoid excluding their readers.
You have a message and a call to action to communicate to them, and you need to do that as clearly as possible.
Readers who can’t understand your message will not respond to your call to action.

So time to look at some of the problems associated with the use of acronyms in business and technical writing…
and how to avoid them.

  1. Lack of clarity arises when writers assume readers understand the acronyms. Your readers will not necessarily be familiar with the specialised terms and acronyms you use every day – to them, it’s jargon.
    So you need to decide which terms need to be explained in order to let your readers gain a basic understanding of what you’re telling them. It can be useful to test whether or not to include a term by asking a few people outside the group.
  2. Consistency in the use of acronyms is extremely important. Once you’ve decided which acronyms you’ll use, make sure you use them exactly the same way every time. Readers will be confused at inconsistencies.
    If you’ve chosen to abbreviate ‘Central Veterinary Clinic’ as ‘CVC’, then sometimes refer to it as ‘Central’, it could be difficult to maintain your readers’ concentration. Your task is to make it as easy as possible for your readers to understand your message.
  3. How to present acronyms can cause concerns to writers.
    • In documents where only a few acronyms need to be explained, the easiest way is to give the term in full, followed by the abbreviated form in brackets. This needs to happen the first time the term is used; in longer documents it can be useful to repeat the explanation early in each section or chapter. When the term needs to be written again, just the acronym can be used. Thus: ‘… report for Southern Minerals Exploration (SME).’ followed by ‘SME continues to…’
    • However, when the shortened form is more familiar than the longer, use the acronym first, as in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).
    • In documents containing many acronyms, consider using a table or list of abbreviations. Usually, these are presented alphabetically, generally at the beginning of the document. However, if the list is particularly long, it may be better to include it at the end so that readers won’t feel overwhelmed by an apparent requirement to understand so many terms. Take care in how you present the list: keep the space between the term and its explanation relatively narrow, making it easy for the readers’ eyes to follow from one column to the next.
    • A footnote can also be used to give the explanation of an acronym used in the text. If there are only a couple, use symbols (, ^); in other instances, use super-scripted numbers in the text.

Use acronyms wisely, and always give the readers’ need for clarity your top priority.

What difficulties have you experienced with acronyms?


Acronyms, abbreviations, contractions

When to replace 'and' with '&'.
Ampersand, and, &… which will you use?




5 thoughts on “Acronyms that won’t confuse your readers

  1. What does one do when so many (previously defined) acronyms are used that you end up with entire strings of acronyms by the end of a document? Do you start reverting back to full terms?

    1. Hi Karen
      Tricky question – and an almost unreadable document, I imagine.
      Sounds like business- or government-ese gone mad.
      My first thought: can you break the document into sections, define the acronyms (on first mention) that will be used in each section; and use only those.
      I guess reverting to the full terms (without initial capitals if possible) becomes the only option.
      Sorry I can’t be more helpful – I’ll post here if I come up with other solutions.

  2. When I saw your Facebook (FB) post about this article Desolie, I had to laugh …

    Just last night I spent 5 minutes googling a set of abbreviations that appeared in an industry magazine (mag) article I was reading because they weren’t explained or stabilised in the article itself. Yes, it’s an industry mag … but the industry is marketing … and the marketing industry is HUGE … so to assume that EVERY reader knew what these abbreviations were about was quite ludicrous. Even more frustrating was the article itself didn’t give sufficient context for me to draw the meaning of the abbreviations.

    So … your article is timely. I’m thinking I might include a link to your article to my letter to the editor … they obviously need an editor like you 🙂

    1. Thanks, Cat, for the comment and the compliment.

      One of the easiest mistakes to make is to assume all your readers have similar understandings to your own. That’s why I make such a point about reminding writers to ask the basic question, Who will read this?

      Happy writing!

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