The Don’ts and Don’ts of Acronyms

Yes, yes, I know. These lists are usually “Do’s and Don’ts” (note to my fellow grammar nerds, this article explains my choice of punctuation.) 

But when it comes to acronyms, just Don’t. Practically ever.

To be clear, I’m not talking about common, everyday acronyms. Say you’re writing about the FBI. You wouldn’t write “the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), says…” right? It would be “the FBI says…” If you can safely assume that anyone who hasn’t just crawled out from under a rock will know what the initials stand for without your spelling it out, by all means use the acronym.

But the rest of the time, don’t use acronyms unless you absolutely must. 

Learning these ubiquitous collection of initials is like learning a foreign language. Literally. I know at least one company that hands its new hires an acronym dictionary so they can get fluent before their first day of work. 

Now, sometimes you need to learn a language. You can’t order a croissant without speaking at least one word of French—unless you eat “crescent rolls,” in which case it’s probably best that we never have breakfast together. 

But if you’re going to ask me to learn your acronym language, make it worth my while. If you’re writing a piece on the Grand Widget Inspector and the term pops up frequently, then by all means let me know it’s “the Grand Widget Inspector, also known as the GWI.”

And just because legal contracts use the “phrase (acronym)” construction—”Grand Widget Inspector (GWI)”—doesn’t mean you have to. 

General Rule of Writing: Unless you’re writing a legal contract, don’t make your work sound like a legal contract! Find a way to incorporate the acronym into the sentence, as I did at the end of the previous paragraph. It’s much more elegant, and doesn’t interrupt the flow of the thought.

Few things (in the word world) annoy me more than being asked to learn an acronym when that acronym never appears in the text again. Or when it doesn’t reappear for long stretches of time. When that happens, spell out the phrase. Don’t make me use precious space in my memory to store the translation.

And never use an acronym in the first sentence. There’s no rule requiring you to offer the acronym the first time you use a phrase. Give your readers a chance to get interested in what you’re trying to say before you start making them learn that foreign language. Plenty of time to introduce the acronym on the second mention.

I could go on. I will, at some point. But these are my MPPAA (Main Pet Peeves About Acronyms).

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