Pondering acronyms

I work for a tech company. I have worked for the government. In both places acronym usage is abundant. In both places, acronyms rarely help achieve clarity. I noticed some acronym patterns and, like everyone else on the planet, I have opinions on how their formatting could be improved.

tl;dr (too long; didn’t read): Acronyms often reduce clarity in communication. Try using fewer acronyms.

Suggested usage

Before I get into the frustrating ways acronyms are used, I am going to propose some basic guidelines for using acronyms.

  1. If you don’t absolutely need to use an acronym, don’t.
  2. Educate your audience. If you do need to use an acronym, make sure everyone you are conversing with knows what it is.
  3. Don’t use too many in a row. If you fill a sentence with acronyms, you will reduce the clarity of the sentence.

If you write an acronym, lead with the acronym and follow with the definition. For example: CSS* (Cascading Style Sheets) is a goofy language composed of idiosyncrasies. Yes, this goes against writing manual guidelines, but those guidelines could use some updating. The way I see it is when you introduce the acronym, you’re introducing an entirely new word so you should use that word. Then, you should show the definition immediately after. Their guidelines suggest the opposite.

The downside of acronyms

Acronyms reduce clarity of speech. They require all parties involved to be familiar with the acronym. Not only do they have to be familiar, but they need to share the same definition of the acronym. They are usually defined by the nearest industry’s lingo. For the following example I’m going to use an initialism since it was something I encountered regularly when I worked for the government.

  • To a government employee, UI* is defined as Unemployment Insurance.
  • To an interaction designer, UI is defined as User Interface.

You can see in situations involving those folks where there would be confusion. Even if you both agree on a defined definition to be “Unemployment Insurance” for the remainder of the conversation, every time the designer hears UI, they first hear User Interface.

Another downside of acronyms is the regular appearance of new ones within businesses. They are used for teams, project names, new products, and new workflows. They often reduce the clarity for folks not on the team or obfuscate what the team works on for those not aware of the definition.

Acronyms can remain a mystery for folks in a conversation. Especially in larger groups. How willing are you to interrupt someone that uses an acronym to get the definition if everyone else seems to be nodding along?

Funky acronym patterns

There are a few usage patterns I see daily. I’m going to go over them. You should know I’m not particularly fond of acronym usage in general. That doesn’t mean they can’t be useful or that you should stop using them altogether.

Acronyms to save time

Acronyms are smaller and shorter than the full phrase, right? This is a big excuse that doesn’t make any sense in many situations. The time “saved” is negated any time the other person has to ask what the heck you’re talking about. Who wants to spell out “Cascading Style Sheets” when you could just write “CSS?”

Try writing it out. It’s not much slower. Try speaking it. Sounds kind of nice, right?

Acronyms to save space

This is one of the more legitimate uses of acronyms thanks to networks like Twitter. Squeezing a long name into a tweet of 140 characters can take half the tweet. Folks get creative in order to solve their character limit problems. Soon Twitter is going to 280 characters so maybe those acronyms will reduce in popularity.

Another place I see them used is in an interface or URL. Sometimes there may not be enough room to show the whole word. Situationally, this can be useful, but make sure they are still defined someplace a user can see.

Acronyms because typing is hard

It’s hard to write on touch screens, phones, and keyboards for many people. I suspect many folks default to acronyms for this reason. It’s possible this is one of the reasons so many phrases like LOL (laugh out loud) and SMH*(shaking my head) proliferated.

Acronyms to be cute

I love puns, but these types of acronyms are usually not clever enough for even an eye roll. It’s where a team decided to make their name a super clever acronym that spells out a word like CHARM (Cool Haired Alien Refund Machines?) that ultimately obfuscates what the team is and does. Awesome.

Acronyms within teams

I see acronyms pop up spontaneously within teams for phrases they use a ton. However, outside of that team, no one has a clue what they are talking about. Stop doing this.

Acronyms to sound smart

I saw this a few times when I worked for the government. This kind of thing reared its ugly head when someone felt the need to look like an expert in order to sway others. Please don’t ever do this. It doesn’t make anyone look smart.

*Note about initialisms

Initialisms are slightly different than acronyms. The difference is that initialisms don’t sound out a word. They are said out loud as a series of letters. USA is a good example. However, most of this article applies to initialisms as well.


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