Talking sense about acronyms, initialisms, abbreviations, and neologisms

Acronyms are cool, but they’re not all equal. The copy editors’ rule that once you introduce an acronym or initialism you must always use it in subsequent text, is bullshit. I’m here to propose a better way to think about acronyms.

There are terms that are cumbersome to write and cumbersome to read. To help the reader (and the writer), we replace them with initialisms (sets of initials that replace a phrase), acronyms (initialisms that spell out a word), neologisms (new words or phrases), and abbreviations.

Let’s look at three kinds.

1 Essential substitutes

There are phrases that should rarely be spelled out. If they are unfamiliar, you can explain them with an acronym or abbreviation on first use.

Take application programming interface (API). An API is an element of coding that allows programs to interface with and talk to each other — this is how your mobile banking app talks to the mainframe at your bank and then shows you your bank balance, for example.

No one writes out the words “application programming interface” except people like me who are explaining it to folks who may not have heard of it. Software and technology people always just talk about APIs. If you’re writing about APIs in text for people who are likely to be familiar with it, you won’t even define it. If your audience may include some non-technical folks, you’ll define it on first use and say “API” on all subsequent uses, even 20 pages later.

The same applies to terms like FBI, GOP, SEO (search engine optimization), WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get), and SaaS (software as a service). You either assume your audience knows what they are, or you explain them once and never spell them out again.

A crucial quality of these essential acronyms and abbreviations is that they have a specific meaning in the readers’ minds. SaaS connotes a whole shift in the way people buy and use software products. Spelling it out as “software as a service” loses contact with that lump of meaning. So it’s not only good practice to use these acronyms, it’s essential to getting your meaning across.

2 Convenience substitutes

Some terms are less familiar to readers, but become repetitive in text that mentions them. My favorite example is CX.

CX means customer experience. If you are writing about customer experience, it becomes cumbersome to write out “customer experience” over and over again. So you define the initialism CX and then write about CX executives, CX metrics, CX as a corporate priority, and so on.

But once you have defined CX, there are still situations where you want to emphasize it or spell it out. Despite my copy editors’ prohibitions, I am going to spell out “customer experience” if I write a sentence like “One thing will determine the long-term success of your company more than any other: customer experience.”

Terms like GUI (graphical user interface) and ToS (terms of service) might fall into this category.

A book chapter I just wrote goes into great detail about customer journey analytics (CJA). It saves the reader time to read “CJA.” But if I defined it in Chapter 3 and need to come back to it in Chapter 9, I am going to spell it out again to remind you, since you may have forgotten what CJA was in the subsequent 30,000 words of text.

3 Magic words

If you invent something, you probably want to give it a catchy name.

For example, in Groundswell, Charlene Li and I created a four-step method called the POST method: People, Objective, Strategy, Technology. It’s a quick way to remind yourself of the four steps you should take — and the order in which to take them — when you’re building a social technology strategy.

Acronyms like this are cool, because they stick in the mind and tie back to their creators. But use them sparingly. Readers have limited patience for your awesomely creative terminology. Even a book should have no more than three or four.

A quick tip: don’t trademark your neologisms. If you do, others can’t use them without your permission. And that’s a good way to prevent them from spreading.

Too many

Abbreviations, initialisms, acronyms, and neologisms are jargon. You want to keep the density of jargon in your writing low to make it as readable as possible. Writing full of unfamiliar jargon is a struggle to parse, and perpetuates the curse of knowledge — the phenomenon where only insiders that know what you know can understand what you wrote at all.

This means you need to take a hard look at every initialism, acronym, abbreviation, and neologism that you introduce. If you’re only going to use it once, don’t bother. If there’s a simpler way to say it without the acronym, don’t bother. If you’re creating your own name for something that already has a perfectly fine name, please don’t. Acronym island is a lonely place, don’t strand yourself out there.

The Iron Imperative is to treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. If you introduce a useful abbreviation, you are saving the reader’s time. If you introduce a bunch, you are wasting it.

Hmm. Iron Imperative. Nice neologism. I’m glad I made that up.

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  1. Thanks for your guidance and precision. My writing is better for it. How about a piece on the PR issued “statement” written supposedly by Nick Sandmann and the entire debacle in his confrontation with Nathan Phillips and the media’s reactions immediately and subsequently. Many lessons to be learned here on many levels. I’d love your take on it all.

  2. I agree with your distinctions, Josh. Several thoughts come to mind.
    1. According to one prominent style guide–Government Printing Office (GPO)?–we don’t even need to spell out the agency name, even once, if virtually everyone knows it better by its initials: NASA, the FBI, the IRS.
    2. Sometimes it makes more sense to write the initialism or acronym, followed, between parentheses or em dashes, by the full phrase:
    Wrong: “A pilot can be momentarily blinded by light amplification through stimulated emission of radiation (a laser).”
    Better: “A pilot can be momentarily blinded by a laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).”
    Best: “A pilot can be momentarily blinded by a laser.”
    3. Writers must take care when using “a” or “an” before an abbreviation. Should we write “a SaaS architecture” or “an SaaS architecture”? The answer depends, of course, on whether our target readers believe that “SaaS” is an initialism (“an SaaS architecture”) or an acronym (“a SaaS architecture”). Sometimes, there is no general agreement (GIF or “jif”?), and we must use a workaround … or take our chances.
    4. Some gatekeepers mistakenly believe that every abbreviation that ends in S forms its possessive by adding only an apostrophe. As a proposal writer, I face this all the time, especially when writing a proposal for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services: “We understand CMS’s IT architecture” becomes “We understand CMS’ architecture.” It then falls to me to correct the hypercorrector. Sometimes, the dialectic will go like this:
    Me: “It’s CMS’s, not CMS’.”
    Hypercorrector: “Are you sure?”
    Me: “Yes.”
    Hypercorrector: “What does our company style guide say?”
    Me: “I’m pretty sure it agrees with me. If it doesn’t, it’s at odds with Garner’s Modern American usage, Grammar Girl, and nearly every style guide used by professional publishers.” If we omit the s, we risk looking like amateurs.”
    Hypercorrector: “Well, I don’t care; just use CMS apostrophe. ‘Apostrophe s’ looks funny.”
    5. Hypercorrectors may also believe that anytime that every letter of an abbreviation is capitalized, every word in its full name must take an initial cap. As careful writers, we must correct them.
    6. Some gatekeepers believe in, or don’t understand, interior uppercasing. They will “correct” “the eXpedited Life Cycle (XLC)” to “the Xpedited Life Cycle (XLC).” Don’t let them, unless Xpedited is the actual spelling. In the case of XLC, it’s not.
    7. Some gatekeepers try to use initial caps when spelling out a name whose abbreviation includes lowercase letters. I’ve seen SaaS spelled out as “Software As A Service.” Maybe they feel that “Software as a Service,” if read before its abbreviation, would look like an accident. The greater risk is that we or our employer will look arbitrary or worse.

  3. You say you’re glad you made up the neologism “iron imperative.” I couldn’t resist googling that to see if it’s been used anywhere else. You’re quoted or referenced in every link on the first page of my Google search. Every one. You’ve got to get to the 19th entry to find an “iron imperative” that wasn’t yours.

    Congratulations. You’ve achieved a form of immortality.

    If you’re wondering who else independently invented “iron imperative” as a newly coined expression, it was Lawrence Durrell in his 2012 book on Zen philosophy. An independent formulation it is, but you can take comfort that the 2012 iron imperative was boring.