The Acronym Follies

A client recently wrote me when faced with a slew of acronyms in an article she tried to read. Acronyms, such as B2B or EMEA, are generally created from the first letters of a series of words (business-to-business and Europe, Middle East, Africa). But even B2B has multiple meanings, including “back to base” and “border to border.” Beth complained:

“I just saw a very interesting article that I wanted to read and understand. But they started off with so many acronyms that I could not begin to guess what they were talking about. I even Googled the first acronym. Either the 1st or 3rd definition might have made sense, but how is a beginner to know?… Some people don’t want new readers I guess.”

Beth herself is in the software development industry–which is known for its use of acronyms. But she recognizes the importance of defining acronyms the first time they are used and avoiding them as much as possible. I have another client, in the oil and gas industry, who uses so many acronyms that I keep a four-page list on my computer for checking definitions. Even that is sometimes inadequate because different divisions of the company use the same acronym to stand for different things!

Beth mentioned Googling for definitions. The website is helpful in two ways: both to figure out what an acronym means and to reinforce the fact that the same acronym may have dozens of different meanings, some of them quite obscure,  depending on the industry and context.

One of the risks of overusing acronyms is also overusing capital letters. Just because a group of words can form an acronym, the words themselves do not need to be capitalized. The following sentence is correct: “Today, Elbert Industries Inc. (EII) delivered an approved manufacturer’s list (AML) to their certified vendors (CVs).”

Writers who pepper acronyms in every sentence may believe that their only readers will be those who know the acronyms already. But, as Beth suggests, that approach means they expect to never expand their readership and to never encounter a reader who has, even temporarily, forgotten what a particular acronym means.

Your marketing materials, reports, proposals and user documents aren’t a vocabulary test and they aren’t a crossword puzzle either. No one should need a four-page list to keep track of your company’s acronyms.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications helps companies from sole-proprietors to multinationals communicate with their customers in the business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) marketplace.