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Environment, Sustainability, Renewables, Conservation, Water Quality, Green Building — And How to Talk about it All!

An Acronym for Everything

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I find that I always do particularly well on any Jeopardy categories having to do with figuring out the full phrasing behind an acronym. There is a simple explanation for this (useful?) “skill” — I spend a good deal of my professional editing hours spelling out acronyms in articles, manuals, and other publications that I edit. Apparently engineers and scientists love their acronyms. And although acronyms can be useful when used judiciously to replace an overly long title, name, or process, overuse can be problematic for the reader. Overuse of acronyms can reduce comprehension and reading completion.

Most scientific journals require, at the very least, that all acronyms be spelled out on first use with the acronym following the spell out in parenthesis. All subsequent references can then use the acronym, unless the acronym falls at the beginning of a sentence; in which case, the full phrase/name/title should be used. I would, however, go a bit further and suggest that acronyms should be chosen and used carefully and avoided when possible even for journal articles. Acronyms may be appropriate for commonly used terms in that field (still following the rules above, of course). It’s important to remember, however, that the audience of that particular journal may be broader than the specific field for which the article is written. So careful choice of acronyms is important to avoid losing readers from other fields who may otherwise be interested.

For general news publications, however, virtually all acronyms should be avoided. Readers are unlikely remember what an acronym stands for later in an article after having been introduced to it for the first time at the start of that article. Common sense exceptions to this include acronyms for federal agencies or other proper names (for example, diseases) that are used frequently in the media, and, are thus familiar to the public.

Finally, it’s important to get the acronym right. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen a writer do the “right” thing by spelling the acronym out only to get it wrong. Usually by one word.

P.S. My other acronym-related skill is deciphering custom license plates, which are plentiful here in Virginia. I’m pretty sure there used to be a game show for that as well!

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor


Author: Elizabeth Striano

Elizabeth Striano is a science writer and editor and owner of A Green Footprint LLC, which provides communications and sustainabiilty consulting services to environmental consulting firms, nonprofits, and a variety of businesses and organizations.

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