by Jennie Ruby
I have been told, and have taught, that you define an acronym on first use if it is used at least once more in the document. But during a recent class one of my students opened my eyes to thinking further about acronym use. Writers and editors at her agency, she said, have a policy that if an acronym is not used at least five times in the text, they do not use the acronym at all.
That policy struck me at once as being so sensible that I immediately adopted it for my own use. Why make your reader have to search back for where an acronym was defined if you have used it only twice in the entire document? Just spell it out the second time. Unless the acronym is more frequently used in the world than the spelled out words are--like CSS instead of Cascading Style Sheets--the meaning is going to be clearer if you spell out the words.
Another student sent me some text that used an acronym to refer to a group of people. The acronym referred to a medical condition, but it was along the lines of defining Microsoft Word Users as MWUs. The people were then called MWUs throughout the text. This immediately struck me as dehumanizing and disrespectful, especially since guidelines about talking about people with disabilities recommend always using the word people or person, as in people with asthma instead of asthmatics, to avoid characterizing people as totally defined by their disease. It seems even worse to define people as acronyms.
Good writing is both efficient and clear. Use of acronyms may seem very efficient, but that may be at the cost of clarity. Spelling out more words and phrases instead of using acronyms may make the document longer, but it may actually increase efficiency if it means the reader does not have to stop and go back to reread what an acronym stood for.
At their worst acronyms can make a document seem overly technical, or even exclusionary, as readers who are not very familiar with the acronyms struggle to derive meaning from terse groups of letters.
So for now, I am going with the "used at least five times" rule in my work. Let me know what you think. Does your office have a policy like this? Do you use a lot of acronyms? Do you avoid them? I would love to hear from you.
My next live, online grammar class is a one-day review, May 10. Bring your actual problem sentences, hyphenation questions, and other grammar conundrums and have them answered once and for all. Sign up now to allow time for your copy of Abrams' Guide to Grammar to arrive before the class.
About the Author: Jennie Ruby is a veteran IconLogic trainer and author with titles such as "Editing with Word 2003 and Acrobat 7" and "Editing with MS Word 2007" to her credit. She is a publishing professional with more than 20 years of experience in writing, editing and desktop publishing.