September 23, 2017

Avoid alphabet soup

7 ways to get the acronyms and abbreviations out

Seattle investigator J.P. Beaumont, a character in J.A. Jance’s Partner in Crime, tells this story:

How to handle acronyms

Use these carefully Acronyms and abbreviations may save a few words, but they also frustrate readers, who must take more time and effort to understand the message. Image by

“The world we live in is made up of shortcuts and acronyms — the Seattle PD, the U.S. of A., the U Dub, et cetera. The AG’s (see what I mean?) Special Homicide Investigation Team had barely opened its doors for business when people started shortening the name to something a little more manageable. And that’s where the SHIT hit the fan, so to speak. While everyone agrees the name is ‘regrettable’ and ‘unfortunate,’ no one in the state bureaucracy is willing to take the heat for rescinding that previously placed order for preprinted stationery, forms and business cards. So SHIT it was, and SHIT it remains.”

The idea that an organizational program might be named after excrement hardly screams fiction. One of my clients swears that someone in her shop named a company program only to change the appellation when the acronym turned out to spell FECES.

The problems with acronyms

Acronyms appear to speed communication. After all, if you can boil a multisyllabic pileup of words down into a handful of letters, that moves information faster, right?


“[Unfamiliar acronyms] create false economies,” write the editors of the SEC’s A Plain English Handbook. “They may save a few words, but they may also frustrate and force the reader to take more time and effort to understand the document.”

Besides, copy cluttered with acronyms is visually off-putting to readers because it looks as if it’s written in code.

How to handle acronyms

Here are 7 ways to avoid drowning your readers in alphabet soup:

1. Use familiar acronyms. If the acronym is more familiar to your audience than the original term, go for it.

“REITs,” for instance, is fine when you’re writing to a group of real estate investors.

Abbreviation not familiar to your audience? Skip it. As The Associated Press Stylebook counsels:

* “Names not commonly before the public should not be reduced to acronyms solely to save a few words.”

2. Use a generic instead of an acronym. Generics like “the program,” “the policy” or “the plan” often make perfect substitutes for corporate acronyms. So assign a generic word to substitute for the original phrase:

  • Instead of AABC on second reference for Auxiliaries and Activities Business Center, make it the center.
  • Instead of SMICE for Secondary Market Intermediary Commodity Exchange, make it the exchange.
  • Instead of LFAF for longitudinal functional analysis framework, make it the framework.

3. Define abbreviations, don’t just spell them out. That’s what Warren Buffett did when he wrote in one of his letters to Berkshire-Hathaway shareholders:

“These losses are called IBNR, for incurred but not reported. Indeed, in some cases (involving, say, product liability or embezzlement) the insured itself will not yet be aware that a loss has occurred.”

4. Don’t let acronyms congregate. It’s not necessarily any one acronym, but a collection of them that makes readers’ eyes glaze over. David Harris Lewis, an Entergy spokesperson and one of my favorite correspondents, sent me this headline and deck “for your collection of truly bad headlines”:

XPS – Accelerate your ROI in EWM through native SAP small parcel and LTL shipping

Announcing Catalyst SAP Supply Chain Management
Webinar Series!

“Now, where was I?” Dave writes. “Oh, yeah, managing my supply chain.”

5. Don’t use acronyms for multipage pieces. Writing an annual report? Skip the acronyms.

The reason: Readers don’t necessarily read publications in the order you assembled them, so each page needs to stand on its own. Spelling out an acronym on page two is no help to readers who begin reading at page 22.

6. Decipher alphabet soup. Get help explaining acronyms with The Acronym Finder or Both are comprehensive databases of acronyms, abbreviations and initialisms.

7. Make up your own acronyms. When the SHIT and FECES start to fly, some of my friends at FedEx start making up their own acronyms. They’ll mention TLA and FLAW and watch their colleagues try to puzzle out what they mean.

Those acronyms, of course, stand for three-letter abbreviation and four-letter acronym word.

  • Start Making Sense

    Jargon. Buzzwords. Acronyms. They’re things that make your reader go “huh?” And we need to get them out of our message.

    Indeed, jargon irritates your reader, makes your message less understandable, reduces your social media reach and influence, cuts your chances of media coverage, makes your website harder to find and demonstrates your lack of knowledge about the topic.

    It may even suggest that your company is in trouble.

    In this session, you’ll learn how to avoid these obstacles by translating the language of your organization into the language of your readers.

    Cut Through the Clutter - Ann Wylie's concise writing master class on April 17-18, 2018 in New YorkAt Cut Through the Clutter — a two-day concise-writing master class on April 17-18, 2018 in New York — you’ll learn “the numbers” you need to measurably improve your copy’s readability.

    Specifically, you’ll learn:

    • Determine when to use jargon to streamline communication — and when to avoid it at all costs.
    • Run a simple test to decide which terms to use with industry insiders.
    • Turn Google into the best thesaurus ever.
    • Define terms the reader-friendly way (Hint: It’s not the way we learned to do it in Journalism 101.)
    • Steal techniques from Warren Buffett to make complex technical information easier to understand — and more fun to read.

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Cut Through the Clutter - Ann Wylie's concise writing master class on April 17-18, 2018 in New York

    Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

    Would you like to hold an in-house Cut Through the Clutter workshop? Contact Ann directly.


Sources: The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, Perseus Books Group, July 15, 2002

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, A Plain English Handbook: How to create clear SEC disclosure documents (PDF), August 1998

Ann Wylie, Start Making Sense, Wylie Communications Inc., 1997


4 Responses to “Avoid alphabet soup”
  1. Kim says:

    We had a similar problem a few years ago with the name of one of our employee recognition awards. The original name was the Administrator’s Award for Service, Simplicity and Savings. Sad to say the acronym was ASS or AASSS:) So, we simply inserted the word Merit.

    Now it’s the Administrator’s Award of Merit for Service, Simplicity and Savings.

  2. Dan Henkel says:

    Thanks for urging restraint and sensible use when working with acronyms. Strictly speaking, though–as I understand it–many of the examples cited are not acronyms, but initialisms. Acronyms are pronounceable words made up of the initial letters in an expression (e.g., SCUBA or NASA). ASPCA and ROTFLMAO are initialisms.

    Thanks for fighting the good fight!

  3. annwylie says:

    You are right, Dan. Thank you for weighing in!

  4. annwylie says:

    Hilarious! I like it better without the Merit!

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