Stop using acronyms — they are a terrible way to communicate

28 Apr 2021

Acronyms, TLAs, abbreviations, initialisms. Love them or hate them, our work communication is full of them and we should stop using acronyms.

People and organizations love acronyms. From a simple request to reply ASAP, to descriptions of JAVA solutions using J2EE, J2ME, J2SE, JAAS, JAR and more. There are even websites dedicated to generating new acronyms for use at work! (BTW — be kind to your colleagues, don’t use those websites).

The thing is, acronyms aren’t as helpful as we think.

Why do we use acronyms?

We use acronyms because we think they help. Sometimes they do.

Acronyms make things faster. It is quicker to say USA than United States of America.

Acronyms help make the complex simple. Most people know what RADAR is but few people know (or care) that it means RAdio Detecting And Ranging.

Sometimes acronyms turn boring project titles into quirky, memorable names. It’s definitely easier to say ‘I’m working on project Everest’ than ‘I’m working on the Environmental Variability Eradication Restitution project’.

Why we shouldn’t use acronyms

However, while we think acronyms save time, that’s only true for the person writing them. They actually increase the time it takes someone to read and understand the message.

The simplicity argument is also flawed. Acronyms can have many meanings depending on the context. Now, in addition to mentally unpacking the acronym, the recipient needs to consider if they have interpreted it the right way. This leads to confusion and mistakes.

Here are some examples of common acronyms with multiple meanings.

  • OMG — object management group or ‘Oh my God!’
  • RIP — routing information protocol or rest in peace
  • WAP — wireless application protocol or wireless access point
  • DOS — disk operating system or denial of service

My personal favourite is LOL. This caused issues when it became popular online in the late 1990s. The older generations couldn’t work out why their kids were replying to joke texts with ‘Lots of love’. To this day, some still don’t know that LOL means laugh out loud.

What should we do if we want to use an acronym?

In the end, acronyms are usually only helpful in two situations:

  • To save time for the person writing them
  • To reduce the repetition of long technical phrases in a technical document

Outside of those two situations, the use of acronyms, abbreviations and initialisms is likely to make a message less clear, and take longer to interpret than if the full words had been used.

How can we make messages short and clear?

If your goal is to save time, stop using acronyms and focus on making the content of your message clear. Don’t just reduce the number of characters. Use a structure that maximises the value of the information in a small amount of words. These articles on starting conversations clearly and how to create amazing summaries provide simple tools for creating short messages.

You can also learn how to be clear and concise in all your work communication by reading The First Minute. Available wherever you like to buy books.

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