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Curb your abbreviation

An appeal for assistance on abbreviations and acronyms comes from a colleague at a professional publication. Apparently there has been heated discussion in the shop, bordering on acrimony.

The specific question is about the advisability of putting the abbreviation of an agency in parentheses immediately following the full name of the agency. But it feeds into the larger question of how much abbreviations may or may not compromise readability.

The Associated Press Stylebook is apparently of the mind that a proliferation of abbreviations is an obstacle to readers, because it advises sternly to minimize them. The relevant entry goes so far as to say that if an abbreviation is so unfamiliar as to require being identified within parentheses, it should be avoided altogether.

That, of course, is in composition of articles for a general readership. Professional publications embrace abbreviations and acronyms much more readily as a kind of lodge handshake identifying who is in the club.* Lawyers and civil servants are particularly addicted to the practice. I suppose we could sew them in a sack and drop them in the sea, but it would be gentler, more humane, and less polluting to reason with them.

My colleague wonders on what basis the AP reached its policy, whether from editorial preference and whim or from readability studies, focus groups, or some other organized investigation of the matter. Is there academic research into this? Or investigation by professional journalism organizations?

I’m not able to provide much information beyond a personal preference for minimizing abbreviations and acronyms because they distract me and quickly convey a leaden bureaucratic tone to articles.

So I am casting a net among my readers to determine whether this matter has been investigated and what conclusions have emerged. The comments, as always, are open.

 

*That also includes the annoying bureaucratic habit of dropping the definite article in front of the acronym, for the fancied brisk, clipped effect of saying “EPA reports” instead of “the EPA reports.” This tic is particularly detestable because reporters, who suffer from echolalia, almost invariably adopt it in articles written for the civilian population.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:33 PM | | Comments (14)
        

Comments

Point of interest. Referring a certain regional institution as "the TVA" is as grating as sand in your egg salad to those of us in the Tennessee Valley where the Authority has its shop. Down here it's "TVA." Only Yankees would add an article.

Beyond that, I suggest it's a matter of audience, as you suggest. Although Kitchen Aid makes a range of products, in a food blog the initialisism "KA" specifically means the Kitchen Aid stand mixer.

I'm a medical editor, and in that setting, not using certain abbreviations would make the writer look like a rube. It's expected that the readers are all intimately familiar with a slew of abbreviations; less common abbreviations are expanded on first use and included in a list of abbreviations at the beginning of an article. Extra trees would die if medical jargon had to be spelled out in its entirety each time.

Point of parody. Some lyrics from Allen Sherman's "Harvey & Sheila" (Hava Nagila) just drifted in.

Harvey's a CPA
He works at IBM
He went to MIT and got his PhD.

Amy's observation applies to the computer industry as well.

To amplify on the comment by Amy, in technical contexts, there are certainly times when writing out the acronym is no help. If I write out "universal serial bus," do you really learn something about USB that helps you understand it? There are others where if you don't know what they mean, the words they stand for are not really going to help -- HTTP, HTML, FTP, SATA, etc.

This is, I believe, different from what you're saying, John, but is tangentially related, I think.


Amy Reynaldo,

Your points re/ appropriate abbreviation usage made a lot of (common) sense, particularly pertaining to more niche-type, technically oriented publications like one would encounter in your medical field. When one is, in a sense, preaching to the choir, there would be a lot of commonly understood terminology, and using the specific abbreviations for these shared familiar terms would be welcomed (and expected), I'm sure.

I have a fairly common congenital heart defect that I've managed to live with for going on 65 years w/ thankfully few, if any complications, which I find, as a complete layperson in regards to all-things-medical, to be quite a mouthful-----namely a right ventricular septal defect. (Basically a tiny hole in the septum, or wall, of my right ventricle, which manifests itself in a fairly loud, constant murmur easily picked up by the doctor's stethoscope.)

I'm curious if identifying this particular heart ailment is ever shortened in the medical literature to simply RVSD? I would think cardiologist, or cardiac surgeons would use the short form all the time. Inquiring (simple ) minds want to know. HA!

Please, if you are so inclined, RSVP.

ALEX

As one who has spent many hours editing Defense Department documents, I have seen too many pages reduced to incomprehensible alphabet soup by acronyms. Their use should be minimized; that's not even a question.

(Just a few minutes ago I was puzzled by an article in Slate because it included "DoJ." The camel case was causing me to read the J as a closing parenthesis, and the sentence was making any sense. It took me about thirty seconds and multiple rereadings to parse it correctly.)

But, as is usually the case with such things, judicious exceptions should be granted. Smart use of acronyms can improve comprehension and readability. As pointed out, some acronyms like HTML and USB are far better known than the phrases they abbreviate. And often texts contain repeated uses of a particular phrase that can be abbreviated to good effect.

And it's wise for copy editors to spell out acronyms, even if they wind up retaining the abbreviation in the final copy. Acronyms often mask grammatical or logical errors in sentences.

There's also the issue of organisations whose names are too long and boring to bother writing out, or don't explain very well what the body actually does or why it's important. If I were writing about the RSPCA I'd just call it an animal welfare charity rather than the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. If I were mentioning the SEC in a UK publication I'd probably just describe it as a US financial regulator rather than giving its full name.

Then there are the cases where organisations have retained their initials but seek to brush the full name under the carpet. Examples include the BMJ, which no longer officially refers to as the British Medical Journal, although it remains a leading British medical journal; ISBA, which now bills itself as The Voice of British Advertisers rather than the stodgy sounding Incorporated Society of British Advertisers; and the NASUWT, which, understandably, just calls itself The Teachers' Union rather than the National Association of Schoolmasters / Union of Women Teachers.

Of course, in the age of Google, omitting the full name of an organisation is only going to leave inquisitive readers in the dark for a few seconds.

Agree with Amy above. Abbreviations should be used whenever the audience would be comfortable with them; or when not using them would cause excessive verbiage.

I'm currently writing a paper where the central mesencephalic reticular formation (a small area in the brainstem) plays a significant role. And life is too short to spell out central mesencephalic reticular formation instead of cMRF every time I want to mention the central mesencephalic reticular formation. And as the example of the central mesencephalic reticular formation amply shows, writing out long expressions (such as the central mesencephalic reticular formation) over and over again can break the flow of the text and actually impede understanding rather than improving it.

Alex, my cousin the NICU nurse (that's neonatal ICU) has dropped "VSD" into her conversation before. The NICU folks deal with NEC, ROP, IVH, PDAs, and all sorts of alphabet soup.

The review article I'm editing now is on a topic that is always rife with abbreviations. Actual sentence: "Diagnostic considerations in acute-onset ILD include infection, AIP, acute EP, DAH, acute HP, acute COP, drug toxicity, or acute exacerbation of previously undiagnosed IPF or other ILD, such as EP, HP, or COP." This will be completely comprehensible to anyone in pulmonary medicine. Spelled out, that sentence would be more than twice as long! I think the reader would lose her train of thought midway through without the abbrevs.

That said, in a newspaper setting for a general readership, abbrevs risk interfering with the reader's understanding.

If you do decide to use the sack, don't forget to include an ample supply of rocks prior to sewing said sack shut.

With all respect, Ms. Reynaldo, while anyone in pulmonary medicine will understand all the abbreviations, it's still a damned ungainly senternce.

If you know who your readers are, you can probably figure out what to do. In general writing I would expand the first time, with abbreviation in parentheses if the name appears several times in the text, and from then on use the abbreviation.

I'm a doctor (general practice in the UK) and too many abbreviations turn sentences into alphabet soup. A lot of the mailings that I receive that are specifically aimed at me assume I am familiar with the abbreviations. Sometimes I am sometimes I am not, but the more there are the more difficult it is to read, the more I have to pause and turn the abbreviation back into a phrase. As for NICU, what's wrong with neonatal ICU? We all know what an ICU is.

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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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