Friday, March 23, 2012

The Trouble With Acronyms

Acronyms are those convenient reductions of phrases to their initial letters. Shortening “Committee for the Advancement of Language Learning for Obese Undergraduate Students” to (CALLOUS) would obviously save significant space in a page-limited proposal, especially if you’re going to repeat if often, which proposals (in the defense business, anyway) tend to do.

There are schools of thought about how to introduce acronyms into a text, whether phrase-first followed by the acronym, or vice-versa. There can be good arguments for each. Sometimes the much-used acronym takes on a life of its own, to the point where the people using it will have forgotten what the actual words are. Called on in a pinch to define it for an outsider, the expert can’t, and finds his listener furtively checking his, the expert’s, badge to see if he really belongs in the building. This is the argument for the second variation above.  For the rest of us, who know the words and would like to forget the acronym, the first method works best.  

The convention is that the acronym, presented all-caps and in parenthesis, is defined with its full phrase the first time it’s used in the document; after that, the acronym appears alone. If it’s a huge document, has many sections, or different parts will be read by different people, you might want to refresh the definition at appropriate points. What you don’t want to do is keep repeating the phrase and the acronym together.

Somehow – that concept is almost impossible to put across to technical subject matter authors. They routinely persist in repeating the full phrase and its acronym every time. That doesn’t only defeat the purpose; it creates two practical problems. It expands the page count in what, 5 will get you 8, is probably an over-long document to begin with; and those capitalized,  parenthesized interruptions can disturb your concentration on what may already be difficult reading. 

But it’s the perverse nature of the acronym that, even used properly, it has undesirable consequences.  Occasionally, when conditions come together just so, an author can string together a whole series of acronyms triumphantly into a sentence-length jumble of letters and parentheses. This wins him the admiration of his peers and possession of the cup, but it makes it tough for an evaluator.  
Government evaluators, God love ‘em, must have to harden themselves to this sort of thing, I suppose. I’ve never been one, so it’s conjecture, but if I had their job I think the first time I was called on to decode one of those half-the-alphabet lines someone’s document would disappear quietly under the table.  I’m sure that doesn’t happen really, but they’re human; why not make it easier for them? 

If you win your new business with proposals, here’s a syllogism for you.
  • Everyone on the proposal team is a specialist.
  • Specialists in other specialties often don’t write well.
  • A writing specialist could improve your proposal.   
Next: Blog vs Newsletter; what’s the difference?