(My Writing Pet Peeves, Part 6)
Over the last two weeks, I’ve written peer reviews* for three different manuscripts (MSs). All three included newly coined acronyms (NCAs) to substitute for repeated short technical phrases (RSTPs). I’ve gotten in the habit, whenever I run across an NCA, to use my word processor’s search function (WPSF) to find and count occurrences of the NCA in the MS. Frequently (including for two of the recent three MSs), my WPSF reveals that the NCA is used only once or twice more in the MS. That makes it an RUA – a rarely used acronym – and RUAs are one of my writing pet peeves (WPPs).
By now that you probably suspect that I’m deliberately using a lot of acronyms to annoy you. You’re right, and if I’ve succeeded, I’ve made my point. (Having made it, I’ll spare your further acronymical abuse.) As scientists, we love acronyms; we use them with glorious abandon, and we produce text like “fMRI analysis suggests that self-awareness is associated with greater HDR of BOLD contrast in the dmPFC, as supported by RM-ANOVA (Table 1).”** Perhaps reading that sentence makes you think we should love acronyms a little less. I agree.
The problem with acronyms in general, and newly coined ones in particular, is that they place a cognitive load on the reader. As you read that first paragraph of mine, every time you came to an occurrence of “NCA”, you had to stop to decode the acronym – to remember what it stood for, to replace NCA in the sentence with “newly coined acronym”, and then to reconsider the modified sentence to assess what was being said about those newly coined acronyms. When an acronym is brand new, that cognitive load is significant. As an acronym becomes more familiar, the load gets smaller, until an acronym as familiar as DNA or SCUBA doesn’t carry any load at all – it’s simply a word synonymous with the original phrase, and often a simpler one at that. The issue is that few acronyms have the status of DNA – carrying lower cognitive load than the phrase it replaces. The extra work imposed by a newly coined acronym is worthwhile only if there’s a payoff for the reader; and if you use the newly coined acronym only once or twice, that’s very unlikely.
Why do we love our acronyms so much, anyway? I think there are four reasons – one good, and three dubious at best.
- The good reason: because sometimes, acronyms really do save reader effort. I’d rather read “DNA” thirty-seven times in a paper than “deoxyribonucleic acid” thirty-seven times.
- The first dubious reason: because acronyms make it easier to write. I’d rather type “DNA” than “deoxyribonucleic acid”, even if it’s just once. Actually, I use all kinds of newly coined acronyms when I’m writing – but then I use search-and-replace to substitute actual words before I put my manuscript in front of a reader. (A custom macro can do this easily, if you like such things.) No decision about how a manuscript looks should be based on how it’s easiest to write – all decisions are about the reader.
The second dubious reason: because acronyms make the text shorter. Brevity is indeed important (which is why The Scientist’s Guide to Writing has an entire chapter on it). But: while it’s easy to measure brevity by word count, what really matters is not a manuscript’s word count,*** but how long it takes someone to read and understand it. Here, acronyms (and especially novel ones) can be counterproductive.
- The third and most dubious reason: because acronyms make our writing sound science-y. Like the passive voice, “utilize”, the flattening of authorial voice, and the avoidance of contractions, acronyms are a familiar characteristic of our literature. They’re part of what makes a piece of writing feel like authentic scientific writing to us. As writers, we tend to emulate what we read, and we can be downright uncomfortable with text that doesn’t sound like the rest of the literature. Unfortunately, that means our tedious and turgid literature only gets more tedious and more turgid.
© Stephen Heard June 18, 2019
If you enjoy my curmudgeonly rants about writing (and who wouldn’t?), here are some more of my Writing Pet Peeves: There’s no Such Thing as an Unrelated Genus, Statistics and Significant Digits, Friends Don’t Let Friends Use “cf.”, One Figure at a Time, Please, and For the Love of All That is Holy, Stop Writing “Utilize”.
**^I’m definitely an offender here – a resident in glass houses throwing stones (RIGHTS), if you will.
***^Except, of course, that a fixed word-count limit is sometimes imposed by a journal. If there’s no other way, one may be forced to make word-count cuts that don’t help the reader. Fortunately, there’s usually another way.