Spelling out acronyms

We live in a world of acronyms, alphabetical abbreviations, such as U.S.A. or F.B.I. or C.I.A. They save space, and are easier to write and read than “United States of America” or “Federal Bureau of Investigation” or “Culinary Institute of America.” We use them all the time, so we assume our readers understand them. Not necessarily.

Readers appreciate explanation, and they don’t resent explaining things they might know, but might not. So we spell out acronyms the first time we use them in a piece, followed by the acronym in brackets. After that, we simply use the abbreviation, like this: “After graduating, she joined the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Three years later, she developed innovative pat-down techniques that caused less embarrassment for TSA officers.”

Remember that one acronym can stand for a number of titles. “C.I.A.” can mean any of the following:

Central Intelligence Agency
Certified Internal Auditor
Cleveland Institute of Art
Chemical Industries Association
Culinary Institute of America.

You can’t assume that your readers will decode the right one.

Clusters of acronyms, so-called “alphabet soup,” can confuse readers, like this: “ARUFON sent a FOIA request on UFOs to the CIA.” You can’t make a rule about how many acronyms one sentence can contain. Like everything in writing, it’s a balancing act among common usage, brevity, and clarity. But the greatest of these is clarity.

How do you know if your readers will understand an acronym? Ask three other writers who don’t cover the subject what the letters mean. If two of them miss it, spell it out for your readers. If in doubt, spell it out.

[Got any anecdotes about acronyms?]

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Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 1:58 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. 1. I think CIA is an abbreviation, not an acronym.
    2. No matter, I have an anecdote. My reporting students used to cover a group called the Community Appearance and Design Review Board and for reasons unclear to me always used CD&RB in subsequent references. I kept pointing out “the board” would be a better subsequent reference. The reader will understand it whereas the reader trips over CD&RB.

  2. Thanks, R Thomas.

    My least favorite is “UDAG grants.”


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