Abbreviations have been around for as long as people have been putting thoughts to paper (or stone, parchment, or whatever other materials have been used throughout history). From ancient Greece to Twitter, shorthand has been used to save time, space and materials. The process of writing in shorthand is called stenography, from Greek stenos (narrow) and graphie (writing), or sometimes brachygraphy, from Greek brachys (short) or tachygraphy, from Greek tachys (swift, speedy). A great example of an abbreviation devised in ancient Latin that has carried through to today is the symbol we use for and, the ampersand (&), short for the Latin word et. Check out Kate Wiles’s post from The History Vault entitled The History of Abbreviation if you are interested in learning more.
Abbreviation is the umbrella term for anything that is shortened but retains its original meaning. This includes initialisms (pronounced letter by letter: RCMP, HIV), acronyms (pronounced as words: NASA, AIDS), contractions (Dr., don’t) and symbols (&, $). Some abbreviations are obvious either from the context or from convention, such as contractions and symbols, but others require explanation to be understood by readers. I will focus my attention on those. It is my intent with this first post to highlight some of the issues that arise with using abbreviations in formal writing, as well as some guidelines for making your writing accessible to your readers. In the second post, I will tackle the wide variety of style choices available and consider the pros and cons of each.
In a world where texting and tweeting now rule our lives, it seems only natural that we would rely more heavily on tricks that keep things under 140 characters. BTW, L8R, WTF. Acronyms and initialisms help us to do that. But they also cause a lot of headache. For an abbreviation to be effective, the receiver of the message must be familiar with the accepted convention. I’m sure we’ve all heard of the lady who sent out a text to family and friends after the death of a relative and wrote LOL, believing it meant Lots of Love rather than Laugh Out Loud. Um…awkward.
So what are some of the tricks to using abbreviations? Well, with informal writing, such as with social media, I’d say have fun (BNTMF). As long as your audience is familiar with the particular jargon you’re using, there is little repercussion (the LOL example being a gentle reminder that social media may not be the most appropriate forum for every social interaction). When it comes to formal or professional writing, where clarity and readability is always the goal, it is paramount that you know your intended audience. Are you writing for a group of educated professionals within a specific area of study, or are you writing to increase public awareness of an issue? No matter what you are trying to convey, The Copyeditor’s Handbook asks you to consider three things:
- Is the document internally consistent?
- Does the document conform to recognized conventions in the author’s field?
- Does the editorial style facilitate readers’ comprehension of the material?
The following are some great guidelines to help you achieve those goals (paraphrased from The Copyeditor’s Handbook, pp 227-231):
1. Use a parenthetical introduction after the first mention of its spelled-out equivalent.
The technology for optical character recognition (OCR) has improved in the last five years. But even when OCR is 99.99 percent accurate…
Sometimes the acronym is better known than the full term, so some publishers prefer to reverse the order.
Newcomers are advised to read the list of FAQs (frequently asked questions).
2. An acronym is introduced shortly before it is repeatedly used in a document. If its first use is pages away from its repeated use, save the parentheses until it is used repeatedly, or likewise, re-introduce the term again later.
3. Don’t use an acronym at all if the full term only appears a handful of times. The exception to this is if the author wishes to introduce it to their readers so that they will recognize it in other contexts and sources.
4. Alphabet soup should be avoided at all costs! “[S]trings of confusing nonce acronyms…will confuse readers.”
Alphabet soup: The CDF-SPP map shows both the CCDs and the smaller CBGs within the LAWD.
Confusing: The map produced by the Strategic Planning Program (SPP) of the California Department of Forestry (CDF) shows both the county census divisions (CCDs) and the smaller census block groups (CBGs) within the Los Angeles Water District (LAWD).
Better: The map produced by the Strategic Planning Program of the California Department of Forestry (CDF) shows both the county census divisions and the smaller census block groups within the Los Angeles Water District (LAWD).
5. Avoid redundonyms, or the use of an acronym followed by a word that is part of the acronym:
ATM machine (ATM = automated teller machine)
HIV virus (HIV = human immunodeficiency virus)
PIN number (PIN = personal identification number)
So that covers general usage, but what about specifics to style? Every publisher or communications department will have their own, often subjective, ideas about what constitutes good style. Conventions abound, and they are constantly changing and updating. In my next post, I will look at the three big considerations: capitalization, punctuation and plural forms.
Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 2nd edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) pp 216-241.
Wiles, Kate. “The History of Abbreviation” from The History Vault, online. Accessed: February 17, 2015. http://www.thehistoryvault.co.uk/the-history-of-abbreviation/.
Wikipedia, “Shorthand”, online. Accessed: February 13, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shorthand.
 Wikipedia, “Shorthand”. Online: accessed February 13, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shorthand