Convenience or Confusion? Why You Need to Use Abbreviations Sparingly

February 1, 2016

[laughing stock/corbis]
[laughing stock/corbis]

In an effort to fit more into our busy schedules, using abbreviations can be tempting. And once these shortcuts gain traction, their use can spread like wildfire.

However, they can quickly introduce problems with clarity. One area in particular that commonly derails PR writing involves the use of initialisms and acronyms.

First, a quick note on the difference between the two: An initialism is an abbreviation consisting of the first letters of a series of words and is pronounced by spelling out each letter, such as FBI or IBM. An acronym is a word formed from the first letters of a series of words and is pronounced as one word, such as NASA or FEMA.

We all use initialisms and acronyms to save space as well as to aid comprehension. However, in a speed-is-everything world, new forms of these shortcuts that are unclear, conflicting or just plain lazy can pop up overnight.

For example, a new product named Corporate Software Resource shouldn’t immediately be abbreviated to “CSR” when this initialism already has a similar, established meaning (corporate social responsibility), and when few people outside of the company would likely make this association. 

Keep this cardinal rule in mind: Only use initialisms and acronyms in contexts where they are standard in use, have some discrete history of usage and can be quickly recognized by readers. Some can be used in a spelled-out form (“ATM” or “JPEG”), without explanation. Others can be used when they’re appropriate to the content (“EBITDA” in a financial story), and, for those who may not recognize them, they should be spelled out on first mention.

However, new or less-familiar ones (“IoT” for “Internet of Things”) should be used only if they occur more than several times, and they should always be spelled out on first use.

As a writer, I frequently come across errors related to initialisms and acronyms. I’ve compiled a guide to some of these words that cause particular confusion in PR writing. Be judicious when using these shortcuts, and consult resources such as the AP Stylebook or a major news publication to get an idea of how standard they are.

Remember that initialisms and acronyms are often a convenience to the author, but not to the reader. Here are some guidelines:

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