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Saturday, January 5, 2008

About Acronyms, Initialism and Cadillacs

I had to laugh.

It seems the auto companies have gotten themselves into hot water over initials. It used to be they gave cars names that meant something—exotic car names like El Dorado. Or words that connoted speed like Mustang. Or mischievous ones like Gremlin (a word I use in The Frugal Editor, by the way, to establish an image of the stuff that happens to upset our best editing intentions.)

Ken Bensinger, an LA Times staff writer*, points out that Ford's Mark Fields made a mistake when he was speaking at the LA Auto Show. He apparently couldn't keep all his MKXs and MKZs and MKTs straight. Bensinger asked that if he can't, how is the car-buying public going to do any better?

Which brings us to those acronyms. The word acronym applies to those initials that spell out another word that is often related to the meaning of what they stand for in some way. SPAN (Small Publishers of North America) is one of those. Ford's MKX is not one of those because the letters don't spell a name. Some are calling this a initialism. And we're seeing more of it all the time.

The letters MKX might initially give a car-buyer a certain feeling of power, but that intent is getting lost among all of Ford's other MKs. And Lexus's LSs, GSs, ESs, ISs, etc. Volvo uses S with lots of numbers. S40, S60, S80. Vs, too. My point is they soon become meaningless until even the executive vice president of Ford Motor Company can't keep his letters straight—or meaningful.

The same is true of our writing. Theoretically we write for clarity. Many suggest writers use the full name of an entity and then resort to initials or acronyms thereafter. That makes sense. But have you ever run into those letters later in an article and had to go back to search for what they meant? That is not clarity. That's a damned puzzle.

Some might counter that we use initials and acronyms in the interest of brevity. Sometimes we are limited to word count, though that's rarely the case online. Web pages can go on forever.

Some say brevity is next to Godliness. I say, no! With a resounding but seldom used exclamation point! Not when it comes to acronyms and strings of initials. No, sir. I'll take a few extra words any time.

So, here's a good rule of thumb. The first time you use a title, use the letters you intend to use later as an indication right after it. Put them in parentheses. But wait! Even that won't leave you home free. When you're tempted to use initials again, assess how long it has been since you used the whole name. A sentence. A couple paragraphs. A page or two? Factor in that people are busy today. They read quickly. Work out your own guidelines for this, depending on your writer's sixth sense and the familiarity of your audience with whatever it is you're initializing. It's a style choice, but I say error on the side of overkill (and clarity) rather than brevity every single time you're in doubt.

This is an issue that goes beyond style. Teresa Pavia, professor of marketing at the University of Utah says "The poor consumers can't keep anything straight any more." And I say, ditto for readers in general.
*If anyone wants to research the whole article find it on Pages C1 and C6, LA Times, Saturday, January 05, 2008

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