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Short stuff

Ampersands and acronyms preoccupy a correspondent seeking guidance from your humble pedant.

“Whenever the Sun (or the Washington Post or the New York Times) refers to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, it does so as ‘the Centers for Medicare and [sic] Medicaid Services.’ Since the agency's official name uses an ampersand, I'm curious why newspapers use ‘and.’

“I find it especially peculiar because when then-Secretary Tommy Thompson renamed the agency (from the Health Care Financing Administration), he declared that the abbreviation for the new name would be ‘CMS.’ Why only one ‘M’? He claimed that by using an ampersand instead of an ‘and’ in the name, both ‘Medicare’ and ‘Medicaid’ could be represented by a single ‘M.’ (Any comment you can provide on that alleged rule would also be greatly
appreciated.) Yet the newspapers that use the ‘and’ still abbreviate the name in subsequent uses as ‘CMS,’ which puzzles me. I'd imagine the typical reader assumes this is a typographical error and one ‘M’ was inadvertently omitted. If the explanation is that newspapers use ‘CMS’ because that is the abbreviation the agency itself uses, then why not use the ampersand, since that's part of the name the agency itself uses?”

The stylebooks of the Associated Press and The New York Times both insist on using the ampersand when it is part of the formal name of a company or agency or of a composition title: AT&T, Procter & Gamble, House & Garden. So we should all probably be using the ampersand instead of and for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Since, however, the ampersand means and, and the substitution in no way confuses any reader, I don’t expect to lose any sleep over this issue.

Abbreviations of various kinds are a thornier issue. I was unaware of the principle by which Mr. Thompson justifies CMS rather than CMMS, and I have found no warrant for it in the standard references at hand. But agencies and business have taken a free hand in constructing abbreviations.

Look, for example, at the USA Patriot Act, which is actually the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. (I leave it to other commentators to speculate whether such straining for effect in legislation does any more to strengthen the country than having thousands of passengers partially disrobe at security checkpoints does to make air travel more secure.)

But this question does offer an occasion for some general reminders.

Among various forms of abbreviation, an acronym takes the first letters of the words of the name to form a pronounceable word.

An initialism takes the first letters of the title to make a term that is pronounced letter by letter: FBI, CIA.

Most importantly, writers who are thoughtful of their readers will omit acronyms and initialisms as frequently as they can, because the multiplication of abbreviations tends to baffle or irritate readers. I doubt that one reader in a hundred can explain that CMS means Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, with or without the ampersand. That is a good reason not to use it.

The battering of readers with acronyms is a hallmark of bureaucratic writing, a substantial contributory factor to the overall pomposity and obfuscation of such prose. One element of that pomposity that is spilling over into journalism is the tendency to omit the definite article before acronyms and initialisms: CMS reports that instead of the CMS reports.

Angels and ministers of grace preserve us!

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:47 AM | | Comments (1)
        

Comments

I remember when Congress renamed the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but said they wanted the initials to remain the well-known CDC. (1992, if encyclopedia.com is accurate)

Most newspapers follow that. (I don't have the AP Stylebook to check, but a search of their sites indicates the use of "CDC.")

As a copyeditor, I hate it when people try to dictate how the language is used, intefering with the natural order. But as the CDC's case shows, newspapers go along with it.

There's precedent--people are often referred to by nicknames they adopt, even if those aren't their legal names. Clarity is most important.

At least the CDC has a long history in its favor; many non-industry folks call it the CDC in conversation. The CM(M)C has no such history to back it up.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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