When to Spell Out Acronyms?

Subject: When to Spell Out Acronyms?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, "Harris, Michael" <Michael -dot- Harris -at- innocon -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 21 Nov 2006 09:56:06 -0500

Michael Harris wonders: <<One of the most fluid issues I find in writing technical documentation is determining when to spell out acronyms in the first usage and when to 'assume' that since all of the readers should have some knowledge of the material, that spelling it out is not necessary. Does anyone have guidance in this regard?>>

When in doubt, spell it out! <g> The reason for the "define on first use" rule of thumb is that you don't have to guess. For things that seem awfully familiar, like PC, sometimes the answer is to use the actual word (computer) instead. For acronym-infested documents, always try to include a glossary. If you guess wrong, at least the reader has a chance of figuring out what you mean.

Another important and useful rule of thumb is that if the reader cannot be expected to understand the subject, spelling out the acronym won't help. That leads to the question about whether you should be using a word or expression at all: technical acronyms are appropriate for technical audiences because they communicate clearly and effectively, but they're meaningless to nontechies. If I tell someone that I used real-time RT-PCR in a genetic analysis, this won't mean anything to them unless they're a geneticist, even if I spell out the acronym; if I expect any non-techies to be reading it, I should simply say that I analyzed the genetic material by increasing the quantity to a level I could detect and work with.

<<The primary customer of our documentation is a technical branch of the Army.>>

I'm given to understand (no personal experience, but some reading-- and not fiction either) that the Army overuses acronyms, to the point of incomprehensibility to anyone outside the service. So your client is probably a good source of information on this: if they use the term as part of their standard vocabulary, assume it's part of the jargon and use it freely.

<<While CPU is well known, does it get spelled out?>>

Strictly speaking, the CPU is the chip that does the processing. Over time the meaning has expanded to cover the box that contains the disk drives and power supply (as distinct from the monitor), but that's imprecise and arguably incorrect. In any event, it's probably a distinction worth preserving if you're trying to communicate with a technical audience. I also add this as a moral to the story: acronyms often get used so carelessly that they stop communicating clearly. Periodically, we should stop and ask whether we're really saying what we think we're saying.

<<How about CORBA, which a local manager thinks is well-known enough as Common Object Request Broker Architecture and does not need to be spelled out.>>

That term has been around for at least a decade, and the only people who should ever be forced to see it in print or online are people who already know what it means.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca

(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)


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When to Spell Out Acronyms: From: Harris, Michael

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