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Annoying, convoluted, random, oblique names you make (ACRONYM)—some rules on using acronyms

Rule number one: Don’t use acronyms.

The goal of writing, however, is to communicate your ideas. Sometimes an acronym will convey your thoughts to your audience better than the words it represents.

For example, if I wrote “Light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation surgery is a popular way for people to correct their vision,” it might give you pause. Now, if I wrote “Laser surgery is a popular way for people to correct their vision,” you are more likely to understand me.

Here then is some guidance for when you do use acronyms (as always, your style manual may provide different guidelines).

  • Use acronyms sparingly—only if it is one people actually use. Don’t create an acronym because you don’t feel like spelling out a few words.
  • Define the acronym on first use, but don’t define an acronym unless it is used again in the document.
  • Don’t capitalize the first letter of every word unless it is a proper noun. For example, use “frequently asked questions (FAQ),” not “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ).”
  • After an acronym has been defined, always use it and don’t spell it out again.
  • Some acronyms (such as laser, radar, and AIDS) are so common that they do not need to be defined and, sometimes, do not need to be capitalized. Check the dictionary or your style manual for guidance.
  • Treat the executive summary and appendices as separate documents. So define each acronym anew, but do not bother if it isn’t used again in that section.

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2 Responses to Annoying, convoluted, random, oblique names you make (ACRONYM)—some rules on using acronyms

  1. Amanda July 13, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    Question: You say define them the first time they are used, does that mean even in the section header? I’ve got 9 sections and I could define the acronyms in the sections, but the words that they are acronyms for are also the titles of the sections. (Technical Paper)

  2. Zach Everson July 13, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

    I typically spell them out in the headers on all uses. I make exceptions though if the document uses the same acronym often in headers and spelling them out every time seems like a bit much. Consistency in the document is most important.

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