Abbreviations, acronyms, and alphabet soup
by Sara Richardson
It’s fairly common to shorten names. We watch “TV” these days, rather than “television.” We call our Williams “Bill” and our Katherines “Kat.” We can dial up AAA for roadside assistance, withdraw funds from an ATM, stop by an HEB on our way home, and cook our dinner with PAM. If something amuses us, perhaps we LOL or even LMAO. We might tell our BFFs we’ll see them L8R or sign off with TTYL. In school, our classes take place on MWF or TR, and when we graduate to the workplace, we always TGIF. In short, we live in a world of abbreviations and acronyms.
So naturally, if our product name runs long, we abbreviate it in internal communication or nickname it during development. If our company name is lengthy, we develop a catchy way to use the initials in a logo. And if the technology sounds clunky or takes up space we’d rather devote to messaging, why not shorten it up? But what happens when the text is littered with so many clusters of capital letters that it resembles a spoonful of alphabet soup? And how can we be sure that our abbreviations will make as much sense to our potential customers as they do to us? Even though we know what the letters stand for, there’s no guarantee that our audience will know what we’re talking about—and even those who do might be overwhelmed by a sentence that reads like a coded message.
In editing technology marketing collateral, I see acronyms every day. Product names slip into collateral in their verboten short forms from sheer force of habit. Other product names appear that are supposed to be shortened but require a long form on first mention. And there are scores of abbreviated technology terms, marketing terms, and business terms. I see CPU, GUI, SAN, SIEM—and dozens more. Generally, it’s simple to spell them out on the first mention and tuck those letters away in a set of parentheses for use later in the document when the term reappears.
But there are some acronyms that make this practice more challenging when the ultimate goal—communicating an idea to a targeted but still inevitably varied audience—is concerned. Take, for instance, what I sometimes call “Inception Acronyms.”
An Inception Acronym appears to be an innocuous little acronym that is easily spelled out at first mention, but can become a hideous tangle on a closer look. CARLa is a fairly straightforward example of this. The term should be spelled out because it stands for multiple things to different audiences and we want to be sure our audience knows which thing we mean. So what does it stand for in our subset of the world? CARLa means “CARLa Auditing and Reporting Language.” The C in CARLa stands for… CARLa.
So where do we draw the line? In some cases, the acronym might be more familiar to readers than the long form. I’d venture to say that most of us don’t call the American Automobile Association when we get a flat—we call AAA. On the flip side, if we read a recipe calling for EVOO, it might not immediately click for most of us that we’re to use extra virgin olive oil. And somewhere in the middle, it might be helpful for readers to see that a SAN is a storage area network, or that SIEM is security information and event management. In all of these cases, as an editor, I feel it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If there is a line in the sand between a document rampant with unintelligible alphabet soup and one that rambles on with repetitive strings of lowercase jargon, it’s this: When in doubt, communicate.