Extension is all about the practical applications of science, and scientists love acronyms. But in practice, acronyms and abbreviations can cloud meaning and turn off the people we’re trying to reach.
An acronym is formed from the first letter of each word in a series. Writers often use acronyms to save space and avoid repeating a technical term or a long agency name. But consider that readers have to stop and decode each acronym, each time it is used. Acronyms impede comprehension and alienate readers.
Many of us were taught to follow a term such as Extension and Experiment Station Communications with its acronym, set off by parentheses: Extension and Experiment State Communications (EESC).
Oregon State University follows Associated Press Style, which frowns on this convention. The AP Stylebook explicitly states:
“AVOID AWKWARD CONSTRUCTIONS: Do not follow an organization’s full name with an abbreviation or acronym in parentheses or set off by dashes. If an abbreviation or acronym would not be clear on second reference without this arrangement, do not use it.”
Questions to ask yourself
This guidance poses a dilemma for those of us who write scientific and technical communications. Here are some questions to ask yourself when considering whether to use an acronym.
Can you say it out loud?
Acronyms ease communication when they are a shorter, easier way of referring to your subject. But acronyms no one can pronounce have the opposite effect. If you have to resort to a difficult letter combination, consider subbing in some shorthand language instead.
Acceptable: WHB pest status is derived from the transmission of WHBTA.
Better: White horned beetles are deemed pests because they carry White Horned Beetle Transmitted Virescence Agent, which causes whopping disease in raspberries. The damage is caused by the agent, not the action of the pest on the plant.
In this example, the term “agent” serves as a substitution for the hard-to-read acronym.
Who is your audience?
If you are writing for a technical audience already familiar with your field’s terminology, acronyms may be acceptable. In these cases, stop and consider how you would explain such terms to new members of your audience who are just entering the field. You may want to add context to help clarify your meaning.
Better: Food Safety Modernization Act or food safety act (on the second reference)
While many publications in the Extension Catalog qualify as technical documents, most are intended to appeal to a general audience. When writing for the Extension website or a newsletter, avoid excessive use of acronyms and overly technical language. Use plain language.
Is the acronym a familiar one?
Acronyms in common use such as AAA, CT scan, UFO, PTA and OSU are all OK. Avoid using unfamiliar acronyms.
How many times will the acronym be repeated?
If your entire story is based on subject XCT, it’s OK to use the acronym (after you have made clear its meaning). But be selective, and avoid sprinkling in additional acronyms. That can make the piece harder to read and understand.
If you use the term only once or twice, there is no need for an acronym.
What are the alternatives?
Changing old habits can be hard. Here are some techniques that can help readers grasp the meaning behind an acronym.
- Repeat the term in full on each reference. (Admittedly, awkward.) United Aircraft Mechanics approved the deal early Thursday. Later in the day, a representative of United Aircraft Mechanics said the agreement had already been broken.
- Use an element of the full term as shorthand on future references. “The mechanics” instead of “United Aircraft Mechanics.”
- Use a synonym. “The group” or “the union” can sub in for UAM on subsequent references.
When is an acronym OK?
Yes, it’s still OK to use many common acronyms and abbreviations. Here are some frequent uses of acronyms in Extension publications:
- Fertilizer: N, P, K.
- Measurements: F, mpg, mph, GPA, etc.
- Integrated Pest Management: IPM.
- Names of pests, such as spotted-wing drosophila, or SWD.
- COAREC and other experiment stations. (Spell out the full name on first reference.)
- EPA, IRS, ODA.
What’s the right way to use an acronym?
Spell out the full term on first reference, and introduce the acronym within the same paragraph.
- These producers employ a practice known as Integrated Pest Management. IPM uses a combination of strategies to control pests.
- These producers employ a practice known as Integrated Pest Management, or IPM. Producers who use IPM report better outcomes.
Punctuation: Avoid periods between individual letters unless the acronym would spell an unrelated word. Academic degrees (M.S., Ph.D., etc.) and some two-letter acronyms are an exception.
Plurals: Add s, no apostrophe. REIs, PHIs. Exception: Letters, such as A’s and B’s.
Can I use an acronym in my title?
Avoid the use of acronyms in headlines, titles and subheads, especially if the acronym is not in familiar use.
The upshot: Be conscious of any reading impediments embedded in all caps in your text. Make reading easier by keeping acronyms to a minimum.
What other questions do you have about acronyms? Leave them in the comments and we’ll get back to you!