Avoid These Pitfalls When Using Acronyms, Abbreviations, and Other Technical Language
On a recent radio commercial the advertiser said “We are rated A+ by the BBB.”
I might have opted to say “rated A+ by the Better Business Bureau.”
Yes, BBB and Better Business Bureau are the same thing.
And so it should be equally clear either way.
But when you say “rated A+ by the BBB” it’s too many letters strung together, and the listener’s mind shuts it out.
“Rated A+ by the Better Business Bureau” is more palatable to the recipient of your message.
Overuse of arcane terms, little-known acronyms, and unfamiliar abbreviations can stop your readers in their tracks — and not in a desirable way.
It is okay and sometimes even preferred to use acronyms and abbreviations that people are familiar with and whose meanings are clear to them.
But the problem is you can’t be sure whether and how many of your readers know them. Let’s look at a few example:
- GWP stands for global warming potential. Many people don’t know that. And many don’t know what it means. Solution: spell out GWP and give a quick definition the first time it appears in your copy. After that, you can use the abbreviation.
- USA is safe. Almost everyone knows it stands for United States of America.
- DARPA is also frequently used. But many don’t know what it stands for. They know it is some kind of government agency, but may not understand what DARPA is or does.
- DoD is on the border as far as usage is concerned. Many people know it stands for Department of Defense, and they know what that is. But many others don’t. And with the lowercase "o" between the two capital Ds, DoD looks a bit odd, at least to me.
- Laser is a familiar acronym and most people know what a laser is. They don’t necessarily know that it stands for. But when a thing is most commonly called by its acronym, it doesn’t matter so much. Although when I went for laser eye surgery, and the doctor did not know what laser stands for, I thought perhaps he should. But you and I do not need to.
- Technical terms most commonly called by their abbreviation are frequently not written out, especially when the full name is difficult to remember; e.g., LSD and DNA.
- Even if the technical term is a word or phrase and not an abbreviation or acronym, you may want to give a brief definition the first time you use it in your copy. Sometimes we may think everyone in our audience understands the term. But when you ask them to tell you what it means, they cannot give you an articulate answer.
Why such a fuss about abbreviations and acronyms? In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel "Cat’s Cradle," the author has a scientist say that if you can’t explain a thing to a 12-year-old, you don’t really understand it yourself.
So if your reader encounters an abbreviation or word they do not know, that lack of knowledge can severely diminish their comprehension of the text that follows.
The best and safest rule in writing is therefore: when in doubt, spell it out.
Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter specializing in B2B and direct marketing. He has written copy for over 100 companies including Sony, IBM, AT&T, and Intuit. McGraw-Hill calls Bob Bly “America’s copy copywriter.”
Bob is the author of 100 books including The Copywriter’s Handbook (St. Martins). He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on the web at www.bly.com