When I was a kid, I loved alphabet soup. As an editor, I can’t stand it.
No, not the food; the food is lovely and comforting, especially on a chilly day. It’s the often incomprehensible string of acronyms and initialisms I often have to wade through that I despise.
Copy editors call that sea of letters “alphabet soup.” It’s neither delicious nor filling, and when you have to figure out what all those all-cap letters mean (that is, if it’s not just a terminal case of Caps-lock), it’s likely to cause indigestion.
We don’t even get tiny pieces of chicken and carrots to make it taste better.
The Associated Press, on its AP Stylebook blog, says, “A few universally recognized abbreviations are required in some circumstances. Some others are acceptable depending on the context. But in general, avoid alphabet soup. Do not use abbreviations or acronyms that the reader would not quickly recognize.”
As far as general abbreviations go (such as titles like Doctor, Senator, etc.), in most cases, the abbreviations can’t stand alone: Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, 9 a.m., No. 1, etc. Using Dr., a.m., or No. on their own is an easy way to get a copy editor angry. And you don’t wanna do that—trust me. (We get kinda cranky.)
Acronyms and initialisms are also abbreviations, both using initials, but with an acronym being pronounceable as a word (such as NASA or CERN); in an initialism, each initial is pronounced (like NRA). Some are always acceptable in writing, even on first reference, because they’re so well-known—FBI, CIA, IRS, STEM, etc. But there are even more that need at least a first reference before using the acronym, and many acronyms that shouldn’t be used at all … at least if you want people to know what the heck you’re talking about. As the AP blog notes, “Names not commonly before the public should not be reduced to acronyms solely to save a few words.”
Add to that all the textspeak that makes me cringe every time I check something pretty much anywhere on the Internet, but especially on Twitter, thanks to that 140-character limit—LOL (laugh out loud), TTYL (talk to ya later), IRL (in real life) and the like—not so much because they’re annoying but because I don’t know what half of them mean (which is, yes, annoying). ICYMI (in case you missed it) is a favorite of PR types, so you can imagine I’m pretty annoyed by that one.
Some of those textspeak terms have the added problem of competing with ones that mean something entirely different to different groups of people. For example, to people in retail, POS means “point of sale”; for the denizens of Twitter and numerous comment boards, it means something we can’t print in a family newspaper. (Do you kiss your mama with that mouth?) To people familiar with U.S. politics, ACORN means Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (a group started in Little Rock in 1970 with good intentions and success, now defunct and persona non grata), but to others, it might mean A Classification of Residential Neighborhoods, Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhood, or (my favorite because of its ridiculousness) A Completely Obsessive Really Nutty person.
It’s gotten so bad that there are acronyms for “too many acronyms” (TMA) and “acronym-free zone” (AFZ). Really? Do I need to say why that’s just nuts?
I’ve said before that being an editor is somewhat akin to paving and maintaining a road. Acronyms and initialisms often turn into roadblocks and potholes, especially if used constantly. There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of stories and columns full of such things, and it’s because they affect overall readability, especially since not everyone knows what is meant.
OMG, did U C wut ADEQ said to KHBNR, NPS & USGS? SITD on so many things … AFAIC, they’re ADBB. * (Check at the end of this section for a translation.)
You understood that, right? But it saved space, so … Of course, I did waste a lot of time coming up with that …
As an editor, a big part of my job is to make sure that readers don’t get stopped by those potholes and roadblocks. Many times, though, I find myself having to constantly look up some new string of letters that makes no sense to anyone who isn’t deeply involved in a specific topic. As this isn’t a specialty newspaper, I have to think of the general readership, so ditch the BCRETs ** and MAGAs *** and endless government acronyms (DHS **** means different things on the state and federal levels, ya know, and as a rule at the paper we usually don’t abbreviate state agencies except in headlines). Write so that everyone is more likely to understand and traffic can flow, and we’ll not get so irritated by sitting and waiting for that guy in front to figure out that the light changed. We hate that guy.
When you look at something you’ve written, such as a letter, column or blog post, and see that every paragraph—or maybe every sentence—contains strings of capital letters, think before sending it out.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t use acronyms and initialisms at all; I’m simply saying that you should think more about your audience and if readers will understand what you’re saying. Sure, cutting at least some of them out may make your writing longer at first … till you figure out that you’ve been padding it all along, but it will be much easier to read.
Like in most things, the rule for using acronyms and initialisms should be moderation. Unless your idea of fun is to throw every acronym in the book at a reader to see how long it takes him to scream. If that’s you—you’re cut off. EOD! *****
* “Oh my God, did you see what the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality said to Karst Hydrogeology of the Buffalo National River, the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey? Still in the dark on so many things … as far as I’m concerned, they’re all done, bye-bye.” If you only knew how much I scream every time I see “ADEQ.”
** Big Creek Research and Extension Team, tasked by the state of Arkansas to monitor C&H Hog Farms.
*** Make America Great Again (or as some wits have it, Millionaire A**hole Golfing Again).
**** On the federal level, Department of Homeland Security. In Arkansas, Department of Human Services … just a wee bit different on responsibilities.
***** End of discussion (dipwad)!
♦ As for what’s in the title: “Who cares anyway? I don’t know.” Really. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.
To close, in what seems to be becoming a regular feature, a few tweets that cracked me up: The Acronym Edition.