Word rage: how acronyms alienate your reader

17 May 2017

‘The EOI must address a range of issues relating to AAE, including MAC, and the role of HITH.’* Makes perfect sense? As well as having severely reduced readability, this overuse of acronyms makes the communication unnecessarily bureaucratic. This results in a high risk of excluding or alienating your reader.

An acronym is a string of initial letters, and sometimes other letters, pronounced as a word; for example, World Health Organisation (WHO). Strictly speaking, short forms like AAE or DVD are initialisms not acronyms because they are not pronounced as a word. However, in government and business, most people refer to both acronyms and initialisms as acronyms.

As a plain English writer I have a passionate dislike – even dread – of acronyms. In theory, creating an acronym is a neat way to create a short term from a long one. If you spell out the acronym the first time, what’s the big deal? One problem is, the reader has to have a good memory to keep the meaning of the acronym in their head, especially in a long report where the acronym may not reappear for several paragraphs or pages. Another problem is, different acronyms mean different things to different people.

If you work for local government, you will understand BA as building application. If you work at a university you will be thinking of a Bachelor of Arts. Or you might have travel on your mind and decide to fly with British Airways. BA can also mean Business Analyst or Beauty Advisor. It can refer to blood alcohol level or brain abscess. On a quick internet search I found 129 meanings for BA. That’s a great deal of opportunity for misunderstanding.

When deciding whether or not to use an acronym or write the term in full, ask yourself the following questions:

Will the reader be familiar with the term without having to look it up? Most people will understand terms like CD or PC. It would be safe to use these acronyms, and others like them, without writing the term in full the first time you use it. In fact, if your boss emailed you to get a universal serial bus, you may well think he or she wants you to travel somewhere on the cheap, but you would know straight away what they meant if they asked you for a USB.

How long is the term? Some terms or names are so long it would be cumbersome to keep repeating them. For example, using the short form FODMAP may be a more sensible choice than writing fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, each time you use it.

How often does the term occur? If the term occurs only once or twice in the communication, write the term in full each time and do not use the acronym. The exceptions are those acronyms or short forms that are in our everyday language, such as ATM, DNA or MRI.

How many acronyms have you used in your communication? Too many acronyms interrupt the flow of your writing. Although some of you may have understood all the acronyms I used in the example at the beginning of this blog, they are distracting.

There is no rule as to how many acronyms you can have in a sentence. I personally would choose to avoid having more than one acronym in a sentence or paragraph, or more than three different acronyms per 10-page report. For example; my recommendation for the sentence at the beginning of this blog is, ‘The expression of interest must address a range of issues relating to ageing and aged care, including multicultural aged care, and the role of Hospitals in the Home (HITH).’ HITH will be the only acronym I use – all other terms I will write in full each time.

Good business writing is not just about being clear; it’s about making a human connection with your reader. To create a smooth flow in your writing, and ensure your reader understands your meaning, use acronyms sparingly. Be sure to practise good customer relationship management (CRM) and choose your acronyms wisely.

*The acronyms used in this blog are real; however, the sentences containing acrnonyms are fictitious.

For help writing clear, concise communications, contact Concise Writing Consultancy on 02 9238 6638.

 

 

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