2B or Not 2B: When to Use Acronyms

when to use acronyms

Who doesn’t love a good acronym? Short form communication comes in handy when texting or writing an email?

Acronyms, or abbreviated forms of terms containing only the term’s initials, make life easier, and using them is like second nature for teenagers and professionals alike.

Believe it or not, there is a time and place for acronyms even in formal technical writing, but there is a fine line between acronyms that are beneficial and acronyms that are not.

Using them correctly can enhance the clarity and flow of your writing, but misusing them can cause confusion. Likewise, acronyms can maintain a tone of professionalism or be overly informal and have the opposite effect.

Understanding when to use acronyms and when to avoid them is an important point for technical writers to master.

Here are some rough guidelines to help get you started developing this vital skill JIT (just in time) for your next report… see what we did there?

When Acronyms Are Okay

Technical writing is fairly restrictive when it comes to informal writing conventions.

While creative writers and scholars can get away with using contractions and even some slang, technical professionals need to be careful not to get caught sounding unprofessional.

The sole purpose of a technical report is to inform and convey complex ideas, and it is a technical writer’s job writer to do this as succinctly as possible. Acronyms are welcome when they aid in this mission, unwelcome when they do not.

In engineering and other technical industries, acronyms are a major part of everyday language. Even outside of these professions, some acronyms just stick and essentially take the place of the words or phrases they were meant to shorten. Think NASA, IRS, TV, and laser.

In cases where an acronym has actually become more common than a term itself, you should feel free to use the acronym. Using acronyms can be an easy way to make your writing more concise by omitting needless words.

Examples of Common Acronyms

When’s the last time, for example, you heard someone say that they were going to put directions to your house in their global positioning system instead of their GPS? 

Do you think the average person even knows what “PDF” stands for? 

As an engineer, can you recall a time where you didn’t shorten “piping and instrumentation diagram” to “P&ID”?

In the engineering services industry, we use countless acronyms every day that the average person would not understand. This is true across all professions. We design engineering solutions for SAGD facilities, and an educator consults their students’ IEPs. These are not acronyms that everyone would know, so professionals can choose to either explain them or leave them out.

The question of when to use acronyms ultimately comes down to whether they would be universally understood or easily explained to your readers.

How to Use Acronyms

Using acronyms correctly can be a great way to go about eliminating redundancy in your writing.

Once you’ve decided which acronyms make sense to use, always make sure to state the full phrase you intend to shorten before introducing its acronym. Then, place the acronym in brackets or parentheses following the full term. For example:

            Our client has chosen steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) as the extraction technology for the facility.

In the remainder of this report, SAGD would suffice to reduce redundancy.

Keep in mind that just because your readers probably know an acronym doesn’t mean they will remember what it means. Provide the full term on the first use and then use its acronym, even when you’re almost positive that the reader would understand either way.

When to Avoid Acronyms

Understanding when not to use acronyms is even more important than understanding when to use them. There is little room for error in technical writing, and writing too informally is an egregious error.

Don’t use any acronyms in your technical writing that you might use in casual conversation. For example, “ASAP,” though a common abbreviation, has no place in a technical report. It is too casual and vague. As a professional, it is your responsibility to use precise and helpful language—sometimes that means using acronyms, sometimes it does not.

The abbreviated form of words should be used in technical writing to make your readers’ lives easier, not your own.

Do not use acronyms because you’d rather not write out a whole term. And it might go without saying, but never use an acronym for a phrase containing slang in a report.

When in Doubt, Consider Your Audience

If you’re ever unsure about when to use acronyms, remember to think about what you know to be true of your audience. Consider their level of technical knowledge about the subject and use this information to make decisions about acronym usage.

Are they using acronyms in communication with you? Do they have professional experience with what you’re writing about, or are you the sole authority? If, for some reason, you don’t know enough about your readers’ expertise to make an informed decision, play it safe, and leave the acronyms out.

The purpose of acronyms is defeated when they create barriers to communication. Use acronyms when they will save your readers time by allowing quick reference to mutually understood concepts. Don’t forget to write out the term in full before beginning to use its acronym.

Check out more technical writing tips in our resources section.

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