FWIW, A Rant on Acronyms

My work life is filled with acronyms, mostly TLAs (three-letter acronyms) and what I’ll call MLAs (multiple letter acronyms). Well, technically they’re abbreviations, but let’s not get off track already. I suspect that you may suffer the same fate. Acronym soup is comprised of generally used business acronyms such as ROI, specific company-related acronyms (fill in the blank here), and then a constant infusion of industry-specific acronyms.

I take pride in knowing what most of them stand for, and when I encounter one that I don’t recognize, I have an immediate need to look it up. The problem is that if you’re looking for the meaning of a particular acronym, you’ll find multiple uses of the same set of characters appearing in the same order (even in the same industry). Take WSE, SOA, SCP, and SCM, for example. If you’re not savvy on the context, it’s easy to pick the wrong meaning. See what I mean?

Let’s face it, it’s getting more ridiculous all the time. At Microsoft acronyms are a way of life, but some people really abuse them. You know the kind of person I’m talking about - the one who likes you to think she’s really smart and on top of the subject. This person uses it as a kind of verbal jujitsu. “In FY08 Q4 our NSAT and ROI on Vlabs will beat the PMs ZTI XML deliverable. “Wow, she really packed a lot into that sentence and must be smart, but I have no idea what she’s talking about!!

I’m sure I’m not alone here. A couple of times a month I find myself being held captive in a meeting, wishing I didn’t have to listen to this kind of “explanation.” And would you raise your hand in front of the rest of the team and say, “Excuse me, what does ZTI mean?” Remember what your grade school teacher said, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”

If you’re like most people, when you put too much hot sauce on your dinner, your taste buds are going to scream (or die); and when you use acronyms like they’re on steroids, you’re going to confuse (or lose) your readers.

Don’t get me wrong, when used sparingly and appropriately, acronyms do have a valuable purpose. And I would never spell out XML in the offending sentence above. Some things are better known as their acronym (USB, TCP/IP... the list goes on) and spelling them out only adds extraneous information. In fact, spelling them out may even confuse readers.

So, as with many things, we need to strike a balance. One of our fearless editors at TechNet Magazine maintains an Excel spreadsheet that lists every single technology-related acronym and its meaning. We have developed a set of rules regarding acronym usage. And if you’re wondering why we keep expanding say, VPN, it means that we’ve decided that some readers would benefit from it being spelled out. Occasionally we decide to retire something and just don’t expand it anymore because either you have to be living on Mars not to know it or the acronym is so much better known that by using the expanded version, we’d just be confusing you.

Another interesting twist is that sometimes authors like to invent their own acronyms. Charles Dickens would never have done that…

So next time you’re about to fill your presentation or email with acronyms, think twice.


Etya Novik
Managing Editor

Comments (3)

  1. Anonymous says:

    A few months back, our managing editor, Etya Novik, discussed the almost-ridiculous use of acronyms ,

  2. cmroanirgo says:

    I love those people who love TLAs. I generally ‘attack’ them using one of two methods:

    i) Patently Ignore Them. This involves thinking about the weekend just passed, or more importantly, the weekend ahead.

    ii) Act Stoopid. Prompt them, _everytime_ they use a TLA with, "What’s that mean again?", and when they answer (for example), "You know, ABC = Another Brilliant Condition", you get really annoying by asking what a (for example) what _that_ actually means.

    So when later on in their diatribe, they mention "ABC" again, you can interject, "Another Brilliant Condition", which neatly breaks their train of thought.

    I prefer ii) since there are many benefits from it:

    a) You get to interact in a completely meaningless discussion (rather than being bewildered or just ignoring it all).

    b) By forcing the speaker to spell out the meanings of all the TLAs, other people who aren’t quite so brave are enlightened.

    c) By being ‘Cruel to be kind’, you are forcing the speaker to start acting rationally again.

    Of course, there are some circumstances where ii) isn’t possible (eg a public speech), or you are too shy to vocalise your bewilderment, making i) your only option.

    PS: What’s FWIW mean?


  3. Wonderkid says:

    Would your brave editor share the said spreadsheet please. I am constantly debating with myself on which Acronyms should be used as Acronyms and which should be expanded. Case in point – IHAC ("I Have A Customer"). I see this acronym used so often that, it makes part me believe that its an "accepted" acronym (like "ASAP"). But part me thinks not too many people outside of Sales, Marketing and Professional Services (people who deal with customers) would know what IHAC stands for.

    TIA – Wonderkid

    Wonderkid2007-Aloha at yahoo dot com

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