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

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

Guest post from Scott Yates

Abbreviations and acronyms have embedded themselves in English as somewhat of an auxiliary language. If you thought Latin was a dead language, it isn’t. It lives somewhat zombie-like in some very common abbreviations like, e.g., i.e., etc.

(Notice how the “etc.” in that last sentence did double-duty there? No extra charge for that. 😉

(Same goes for the double-duty parenthesis at the end of the last parenthetical winky-face.)

You could, if you like, read this list of Latin Abbreviations. Perhaps the next time someone quotes your writing and inserts “(sic),” you’ll be less confused, and definitely not flattered.

Then there are acronyms turned into words formed from the first letters of a multi-word name. (Remember “M.A.S.H.”?) When an acronym is widely used, it often becomes a word itself, and we forget its original meaning. You can look these up, but the laser, scuba and countless others, are actually acronyms formed from the first letters of word phrases. (If you’re into the more obscure military acronyms, check out the meaning of FUBAR — and its suffix BUNDY — as well as the somewhat surly FIGMO.)

The New York Times differs from the AP and others in turning acronymous words into words that are lower case, so U.S. Navy SEALs become “Seals.” Why? Because the Times says so. No other journalistic organization has hopped on that bandwagon.

In journalism it’s usually easier to spell out an abbreviation in the first paragraph of a piece and then sprinkle it with generic references like “that agency,” or “the association.”

Likewise, the Chicago Style Manual encourages students and teachers to “use abbreviations sparingly in text because they can make your writing seem either too informal or too technical.”

In blogging, too informal could also include current texting abbreviations like OMG, BRB, LOL, ROFLMAO, each of which should be taken out and shot. IMHO, anyway.

As regards the too technical caveat, there are clients out there who want their blogs laced with the heady brew of technology’s exciting acronyms and cliquish abbreviations. It floats their boat, and they’re willing to pay the freight, so I tell my writers to give them what they want.

Then there’s the common practice described in Albert Joseph’s Put It In Writing! (p.193):

“Always spell out the full term the first time it appears in any piece of writing, then follow it immediately by the acronym in parentheses, almost as if saying “…hereinafter referred to as…”

With due respect to Mr. Albert, I would disagree with his use of the adverb “always” and replace it with “never.” Should bloggers say, for example, “The National Football League (NFL) is…”?


Instead, I think we should declare a Grammarly-BlogMutt Acronym Rule that a writer never follows a name with an acronym in parenthesis. According to this new rule, writers should spell out anything that needs it, and then just use an acronym in following references, but only if that acronym will be completely clear to every potential reader of what is written.

That’s the rub, however. For some readers, the NFL refers to the National Forensic League, which is an organization that arranges debating contests. (Maybe we can get them to organize a debate between those who would force us to make acronyms parenthetical, and those enlightened writers who follow the Grammarly-BlogMutt Acronym Rule.)

So, at the end of it all, what’s the rule for acronyms in modern usage? It’s the same rule that should be in the front of any writer’s mind before fingers get close to a keyboard: Consider the reader.

If you are quite sure that every single reader of what you are writing will be totally familiar with an acronym, then use it. But because so much of what we write today goes online, we don’t really know that much about the reader. What if it’s someone who is not a native speaker of the language? What if it’s someone new to an industry?

With those things in mind, we suggest that you just AAA — Avoid All Acronyms.

Missed Part 1 of this two-part series? Check it out here.

acronym, Grammarly, abbreviation, language, writing

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.

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