‘Should this be spelled out in full, or can we assume the readers will know what it means?’
That’s one of the queries I raise most often when editing or proofreading. It’s right up there with ‘I’ve reworded this for clarity – please check that the meaning is correct’ and ‘Is this an actual name? If not, it should be in lower case.’
People often get confused about how to use acronyms and initialisms, or don’t use them in a helpful way. It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially when writing about a specialist subject that you know better than some of your target readers do. This is especially common in writing about things like business, finance, science and technology.
Let’s get some terminology clear before diving any deeper into this. Strictly speaking, an acronym is a set of initials that’s pronounced as if it were a word: for example, ‘PIN’ (‘personal identification number’). If the initials are pronounced as individual letters instead, as with ‘RFT’ (‘request for tender’), they form an initialism. Both are types of abbreviation – and I’ll use this word from here onwards, just to keep this thing reasonably concise.
Why use abbreviations?
The main attraction of using abbreviations is that they help to shorten the text, making sentences more manageable for the reader. You wouldn’t want to keep on referring to ‘customer relationship management’ and ‘small to medium-sized enterprises’ over and over again when you could be keeping things short and snappy with ‘CRM’ and ‘SMEs’ instead.
Also, sometimes the abbreviation will be more familiar to the reader than the spelled-out form, though you should be careful about assuming this.
What can go wrong?
The most obvious pitfall with using abbreviations, and the main reason to take care with using them, is that some readers might not know what they mean unless you spell them out at some stage. One of the keys to successful writing is knowing your audience, and you need to be sure everything will make sense to all of your target readers. As well as limiting their understanding of your message, there’s a danger of alienating them or making them feel ignorant.
There can also be confusion between two meanings – for example, ‘SME’ can mean ‘subject matter expert’ rather than ‘small to medium-sized enterprise’.
Frequent use of abbreviations – as with numerals, symbols and capitalised words – can give the text an untidy appearance, creating a jarring effect.
Finally, it can sometimes seem that the writer is using abbreviations purely to show off their knowledge, rather than to help get their message across.
Should they be explained?
Simple answer: if you think any of the readers might need an abbreviation to be explained, it should be. Don’t worry about whether this might come across as ‘dumbing down’ – your readers are unlikely to get that impression, at least if your explanation is given in a sensible, unobtrusive way.
Where and how to explain them
Usually, it’s best to spell out an abbreviation in full where the term is first mentioned. In a long piece of work, or one that the reader might want to dip in and out of rather than reading from start to finish, you should consider doing this where the term is first used within a section or chapter. However, it isn’t a great idea to do this within a heading, as it may become too long.
The general convention is to spell out the term first, and then write the abbreviation in parentheses (round brackets) after it, although you can do it the other way round if preferred. For example:
We have decided to use a pay-per-click (PPC) model for the advertising on our website.
You may have noticed that ‘pay-per-click’ is in lower case. Some people prefer to use capitals to clarify what the initials stand for, but – unless the term is a brand name or some other sort of title (meaning it should always be capitalised anyway) – this isn’t really necessary and I don’t recommend it. Here’s another blog post of mine about the reasons to avoid overusing capitals.
It’s also worth considering including a key or glossary that spells out the abbreviations, especially in a long piece of work. This would make it easier for the reader to look up an abbreviation if they’ve forgotten what it represents. However, even if you do this, it’s still worth explaining each abbreviation where it’s first mentioned in the main text, so that the reader won’t have to jump to the key or glossary.
Other things to bear in mind
If an acronym needs to be explained but isn’t going to be used again later on, think about whether it’s worth using it at all. Wouldn’t the full spelling be good enough by itself? Unless you think some readers may find the abbreviation more familiar than the full words, it’s unnecessary and would just become a minor distraction. This is one of those situations where it can look as though you’re just showing off your knowledge.
Some organisations prefer to write acronyms (but not initialisms) in lower case, or with a capital for the first letter only when they’re actual names (‘Nato’, for example). This isn’t very common in technical or business writing, except with a few terms that began as acronyms but are now usually treated as normal words, such as ‘laser’.
If you’re referring to something plural, it’s generally best to put an ‘s’ at the end of the acronym: for example, ‘KPIs’ for ‘key performance indicators’. Make sure the ‘s’ is lower case, as it isn’t another initial.
There’s a lot to consider here, and it can be difficult to make sure you get everything right, especially if you’re using abbreviations frequently. A skilled editor or proofreader can check that your usage is coherent, conventional and consistent, and (depending on their remit) may make or suggest improvements to make it even more helpful to your readers.
Thoughts on Words
An editorial blog. Posts by Graham Hughes.