a note on acronyms

So have you seen that paper they mentioned in the meeting today?


TL? More like TMA;dr


Exactly LOL.

So there you have the issue with acronyms in a nutshell. As long as both parties understand the acronym and recognise it when they see it, the acronym does its job. The collection of letters is a shorthand, an insider speak which helps communication. But when only one person knows that the acronym is, it raises questions – am I supposed to know what this is, why don’t I know what this is? – and that lack of understanding potentially shuts down conversation and can cause confusion, resentment.

Acronyms are a particular problem for academic writers.

We make up acronyms for particular phenomena we are studying. This is an ABCD or an ZXY. We then organise the text around this new acronym. We just hope the reader gets it. And doesn’t forget it. And isn’t irritated by our alphabet choice. They don’t snigger or get turned off by our humorous or clever decisions.

There’s more. Acronyms often appear in research results when the writer is reporting data categories. Oh what was this group of data again? Just let me go back to find it….A lot to wade through, oh I’m spending a lot of time trying to make sense of this.

And some fields of study – my field of education is one – love an acronym and each country has its own set. Writing about education policy can create an impenetrable acronym forest. And then, contrary to the acronyms being a kind of economical abbreviation, they end up being a complete pain for the reader.

While the academic writing advice about acronyms is always to explain the acronym the first time you use it, this often isn’t enough. Readers can forget what the letters stand for if there is a gap between the first explanation and the next time the acronym appears. Queue the reader stumbling backwards to a glossary, if they’re lucky, or doing a word search if they are reading a PDF, or probably just giving up if they are working with hard copy.

While writing in acronyms might be good for the writer, it can be not so good for the reader. Yes, do you often have to use some acronyms, but as in all things academic writing it’s about exercising some judgment about what the capital combos do. Always worth asking what the acronyms might accomplish for the reader.

And what was TMA btw? You got it right? Too Many Acronyms. So TMA; dr is simply Too Many acronyms: didn’t read.

Photo by Nigel Tadyanehondo on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in acronym, reader, readers and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to a note on acronyms

  1. Ciaran Sugrue says:

    Too true! Why has this phenomenon proliferated? ‘knowledgeable insider’, ‘expertise’, preoccupation with word count? Whatever the explanation, and there are likely many, clarity and meaning, awareness of audience, as well as readability are unlikely to be included!


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