Acronyms: Avoiding the alphabet soup

For many professionals, acronyms and initialisms are simply an unwelcome fact of life, but they can at least ensure they’re being used properly with these guidelines.

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• 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.

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