Acronyms: Avoiding the alphabet soup

I work for a hospital system where TLAs (three-letter acronyms) are ubiquitous. Not only do we use health care acronyms, but also acronyms related to our system, and acronyms related to each facility.

I was recently at a training seminar with co-workers from different departments. Our first exercise was to set the ground rules and expectations for the class. One ground rule that was quickly established: No acronyms were to be used in the class unless they were first defined.

By the end of the seminar, we were discussing plans to create a group called the EAA: Employees Against Acronyms.

As writers, editors, and PR professionals, we fight to keep our readers’ attention every day. To accommodate readers who want to scan instead of read or click instead of concentrate, our content must be succinct. We can’t avoid using acronyms, even though we know they interfere with  comprehension. All too often, we sacrifice clarity to save a few words.

But we don’t have to. Below is a summary of style rules and guidelines for using acronyms.

• An acronym is formed using the initial letters of each word in a compound term and is read as a single word (laser, scuba, NASA). An initialism is a term read as a series of letters (FDA, CDC). The definitions of “acronym” and “initialism” are loosely applied. For example, JPEG is a combined acronym and initialism, while FAQ can be pronounced either as a word or a series of letters.

• Unless an acronym is universally recognized by your audience, spell out the acronym on first reference. The acronym then follows in parenthesis and can be used throughout the text. Example: “She made the presentation to the senior leadership team (SLT). The SLT was receptive to the idea.”

• As we found out in our training seminar, acronyms that some consider universally known may be obscure to others. Where I work, acronyms such as FDA and CDC are well known to our internal audience of health care professionals, so we use the acronyms on first reference. For an external audience of patients, we spell them out as “Food and Drug Administration” and “Centers for Disease Control” on first reference, and use the acronym thereafter.

• The AP Stylebook can offer guidance on whether a particular acronym should be spelled out. For example, for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI is acceptable in all references. But for the Federal Communications Commission, FCC is only acceptable on second reference.

• Check your “house” style guides for specific guidance on the use of acronyms and abbreviations. For example, we use standardized abbreviations for each of our facilities and only these abbreviations are used in our content.

• If your content requires the use of several unfamiliar acronyms, consider including a list of acronyms as a sidebar. For web content, link acronyms to their definitions.

No matter what your industry or how many acronyms you’re required to use, use good judgment, creativity, and flexibility when it comes to defining them for your readers.

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor and a regular contributor to PR Daily. Read more of her work at 

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