There’s a debate at work regarding acronyms. There’s lots of opinions out there in the world on acronyms. The pro-acronym camp looks something like this:

  • They are helpful mnemonics that reduce cognitive load. You’d never have passed algebra class without PEMDAS, right?
  • The increase reading and writing speed (fewer words to read, fewer keystrokes to press).
  • Acronyms reduce word count, making text more concise. Less to read is better in the twitter age, right?

The anti-acronym camp looks something like this:

  • They are confusing jargon that increase cognitive load. Stopping to remember what an acronym stands for and looking it up slows you down.
  • They increase reading and writing speed only if the acronym is familiar to the reader and writer.
  • They are shortcuts to get around word count limits.

So, to abbreviate or not to abbreviate?

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends abbreviating a phrase only if that abbreviation is used five or more times in a manuscript. Spell out the whole term if you’re only going to use the acronymized version once or twice.

The American Medical Association (AMA) discourage the use of abbreviations and acronyms. They make an exception for well-recognized general terms, but say “author-invented” abbreviations should be avoided.

I agree with both of these recommendations. But, as this article points out, there is “difficulty in differentiating the term standard acronyms from the term nonstandard acronyms. One of the most famous phrases ever used in the history of written decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court was authored in 1964 by Justice Potter Stewart in a case dealing with obscenity (26). Unable to find or create a specific definition of what constitutes pornography, Justice Stewart wrote, “I know it when I see it.””

With something like URL, I honestly get more confused if it’s spelled out (uniform resource locator). I know URL as the web address that goes at the top of my browser, and I think most other people do too. This would be a “well-recognized general term” in my opinion.

Other acronyms have become so ubiquitous, they’ve ceased to be capitalized. Scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) is one famous example, along with radar, laser, and several others. Clearly, these are common enough to not necessitate a spelling-out either.


Then we get into grey areas. JSON and SSL are common enough in most tech-savvy circles that my instinct says maybe to let them be. But then again, when I read them, I find myself saying “JavaScript… something something” and “security… something something.” I get curious. Then I have to waste precious time looking it up. And then suddenly I’m in the depths of wikipedia.

Worse are acronyms which can have multiple definitions. I used to ask my freshmen what AP stands for. Most would say advanced placement, having just spent the last two or three years taking AP exams and classes. But the news junkies and journalism majors would say associated press. And the pre-meds, nurses-to-be, and hard-core partiers would say alcohol poisoning. Context should dictate which you are talking about, but regardless I’d define these.

So… should you abbreviate? Probably not, but it depends.

You must be logged in to leave a reply.