The Correct Use of Acronyms

When and when not to use acronyms

A sticky note is pinned to a corkboard. Written on the note is the acronym "OMG".
Text messaging has made the use of some
acronyms, like the above one, commonplace.
Follow our tips to be sure you are using
acronyms correctly in your writing.

There is a time and place for everything and the use of acronyms is no exception. The whole point of using acronyms in your business writing is to make your writing clearer. However, if you misuse or abuse acronyms, you'll accomplish just the opposite, turning your memos and manuals into a confusing brew.

What is an acronym?

Essentially, acronyms are shorter forms of words or phrases that can come in handy when you need to repeat the same word or phrase a number of times throughout the same piece of writing. For example, "World Trade Organization" is often written as "WTO." You can see how writing the three-letter acronym can save you a lot of time and keep your business document from sounding repetitive.

Important things to consider before using an acronym

Outline what the acronym means

Short forms aren't always the best way to avoid redundancies. So, if you're going to use acronyms in your business writing, remember: The first time you use an acronym in your document, the words should be written out with the short form placed in parentheses immediately after. This way, it's clear to the readers exactly what the letters mean. Here's an example:

A New World Order (NWO) came into effect after 9/11.

Be consistent

Readers will then be aware that any future reference to the "NWO" in your document really refers to the New World Order. After you've established an acronym in your paper, you must consistently use that acronym in place of the words.

Stick to one definition of the acronym

Always clarify in your own mind the exact definition of each acronym you use. If you define SEM as "scanning electron microscopy" (which is a process), your acronym should refer only to the process throughout your paper. For example, the following sentence would be incorrect if included in the same paper:

 We used an SEM in our experiments.

If you've already defined SEM as standing for the process, you cannot use SEM to refer to the item (i.e., a scanning electron microscope, which you use to perform the process of scanning electron microscopy), even though the first letters of each word are the same. In short, the same acronym can only refer to one thing in a document.

Don’t forget about using articles

Remember that many acronyms still require articles (i.e., "a," "an," or "the"). Let's use the New World Order again:

Incorrect: NWO has emerged in the 21st century.

Correct: An NWO has emerged in the 21st century.

Remember that NWO stands for a noun "New World Order," and nouns require articles before them.

If you're confused about whether to use "a" or "an" in front of an acronym that begins with a consonant, remember to speak the acronym out loud. If the first letter of the acronym makes a vowel sound (regardless of whether or not the first letter is actually a vowel), you should use "an." The acronym "NWO" is a perfect example. While "N" is a consonant, it makes the short e sound (i.e., a vowel sound) when you say it. Consequently, "an" should be used.

Check to see there is already an established acronym for your phrase

It's also important to remember that while you can sometimes make up acronyms, there are many words/phrases that require acronyms that are established and universal. There are a number of online acronym dictionaries you can use to search for commonly used acronyms.

Acronyms in academic writing

If you're using acronyms in academic writing, remember that some scientific journals require you introduce acronyms once in the abstract of your article and then again upon the first use in the body of the article. Should you be unsure about how to use acronyms when writing an academic article, please refer to your journal's specific requirements.

Too many acronyms can turn your business writing into alphabet soup

Please remember that acronyms should only be used for words or phrases that are repeated a number of times throughout your document. If you use too many acronyms, readers will become confused. Here's an example of extreme acronym usage in a press release:

In the US, the notion of an NWO became popular after the terrorist attacks on the WTC. However, officials in NATO and the WTO rarely refer to an NWO in proceedings relating to the GATT, and it can be said that the MVTO, the MFN clause, and SROs have little to do with an NWO.

As you can see, too many acronyms can make your writing more difficult to understand. If numerous acronyms are necessary, we recommend including a glossary of acronyms; your readers may then refer to it if they become confused.

TTYL—Save your casual acronyms for text messages

Finally, while you may often ROFL with your bff about the Chem hw that you need to get done ASAP, please remember that acronyms used in instant messaging are rarely, if ever, appropriate for business or professional writing.

Remember that while using acronyms correctly may help readers understand your work more easily, the incorrect use of acronyms could turn your work into a mess. When in doubt, submit your work to our business editors for a fast, professional opinion.

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