Essential History and Guide for Modern Acronym Use (Part 1 of 2)

by • May 22, 2014

Scott Yates, guest post, acronyms, Grammarly, abbreviationsGuest post from Scott Yates

As founder of a blogging service for business operators too busy to write their own posts, I pay a lot of attention to “good” writing.

We have a wide variety of clients, and our challenges involve the mastery of industry jargon, including acronyms and abbreviations.

So, if a client asks for a piece on search engine optimization or customer resource management — acronymically SEO and CRM — should the blogger just jump in and use the abbreviation, or should we genuflect at the altar of convention and have each abbreviation undergo the initiation of being spelled out at least once?

Well, what do the style guides say?

The Associated Press gurus discourage all acronyms — the AP Style Book discourages using abbreviations and acronyms and advises writers:

“In general, avoid alphabet soup. Do not use abbreviations or acronyms that the reader would not quickly recognize.”

The American Psychological Association, like the Associated Press, recommends against them:

To maximize clarity, APA prefers that authors use abbreviations sparingly. Although abbreviations are sometimes useful for long, technical terms in scientific writing, communication is usually garbled rather than clarified if, for example, an abbreviation is unfamiliar to the reader.

Of course, both the Associated Press and the American Psychological Association use their own acronyms freely, assuming everyone knows who they are. Ahem.

How did we get to this situation where style gurus advise against acronyms, but use them anyway?

In part it’s because of the relatively recent explosion of acronyms in modern usage. Most of the rules of spelling and grammar go back hundreds of years and for English they date back to jolly old England.

Acronyms are much more recent, and — like baseball, jazz, and national parks — are born in the USA.

The “alphabet soup” alluded to above was an innocuously thin concoction that began way back in 1840 with the classic abbreviation of “O.K.”  Martin van Buren, possibly our nation’s most boring presidential candidate, had the nickname, “Old Kinderhook,” and his supporters formed the “O.K. Club.”

The abbreviation quickly morphed to something like its present-day meaning, but it took a presidential campaign to raise “O.K.” to where lexicographers would even take notice.

That was essentially the only acronym in English until the 1900s, when the abbreviation “G.I.” came into vogue about 1915 as a U.S. Army bookkeeping term, originally abbreviated from galvanized iron (the material for trash cans, etc.). Later, G.I. was extended to include everything the government issued, and finally to the soldiers themselves.

Before it was O.K. to be a G.I., we didn’t have any acronyms and not even many abbreviations. In fact, the most common abbreviations in widespread use were the Latin etc., the standard titles and honorifics — Dr., Esq., etc. — and the practice of abbreviating first names like Geo., Robt. and Thos. for George, Robert and Thomas.

Another historical note: Check out the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The shortened first names are the only abbreviations in our two founding documents. Ironic, perhaps, given the U.S. Government’s role in the explosion of acronyms after WWI.

Along came the Great Depression and its soup lines, as well as an alphabet soup of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Terms like the CCC, CWA, WPA and others attached themselves to federal programs and labeled the agencies charged with administering them.

Fast forward past WWII and the growth of our military establishment, local, state, and multilayered and overlapping federal bureaucracies, and the explosion of abbreviations matched the growth of big government. The growth of medicine as an industry added to the mushrooming of acronyms in our language.

Which brings us back to where we started: The information age has brought even more challenges in keeping track of all those abbreviations. While it’s perfectly O.K. to use all the abbreviations and acronyms — and to stray from convention — just don’t mix up your soldiers with the medical term encompassing the human digestive system: They both share the abbreviation G.I.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, to be published via the Grammarly Blog on May 30, 2014.

About the Author

Scott Yates was a writer for 20 years before he started a company where anyone can hire a blogger: BlogMutt. He had help in writing this post from one of the more than 3,000 active writers who have earned BlogMutt writing privileges. Along with BlogMutt writers, Scott recently published a guide to the essential content marketing acronyms.

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