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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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