Go easy on the alphabet soup

Cruising along Interstate 5 in California one day, we passed a rectangular blue sign alerting us that the state OES headquarters was at the next exit. My passenger, a proud member of the Order of the Eastern Star, was delighted to see her organization getting the attention she thought it deserved. She’d have been disappointed if we had stopped in, though, because the sign meant the Office of Emergency Services.

That’s the trouble with acronyms and initialisms*: You can’t expect every reader to decipher the message in your alphabet soup.

There are a few clusters of initials that are so well known that you don’t have to worry about using them most of the time. IBM, the FBI and NASA are safe bets. You probably can think of a few others, but be careful. Not everybody attaches the same meaning to a given bunch of letters, as the sign on I-5 showed.

If you see GSA, would you assume that it means the General Services Administration, the Girl Scouts of America, or the Gay-Straight Alliance? OK, if your box of Thin Mints has GSA printed on it, they probably aren’t from the government. But even the context might not tell you enough. A few hours before posting this, I was reading an online discussion about the U.S. Constitution. I had to stop for a few moments and figure out that someone was using USSC to mean the United States Supreme Court. You never want your readers to stumble like that.

So here’s what to do: The first time you mention an organization, use the full name. Then don’t immediately follow it with the initials in parenthesis (unless your boss forces you to). If the initials are obvious, we’ll recognize them later on. If they aren’t obvious, you shouldn’t be using them in the first place. If you are writing about the Benevolent and Protective Association of Industrial Widget Polishers International, readers will know what you mean if you later mention the Widget Polishers, or the Polishers, or the association, or even “the industry group.” They’ll stumble over BPAIWPI.

It’s possible to go overboard, of course. A lot of people will draw a blank if you write about a Uniform Resource Locator. We’ve been calling them URLs for more than 20 years now.

Even better, though, just call it a web address.


* It’s an acronym if you pronounce the letters as a word, such as NASA. If you say the letters individually, as in IBM, it’s an initialism.)


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