The dangerous temptation of acronyms

(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.

So: please cut it out with the newly coined but rarely used acronyms (NCBRUAs).  Or when I get your manuscript, I’m going to have to send it into the Fire Swamp for the ROUSs**** to deal with.

© 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”.


*^And no, my labour wasn’t “unpaid” (although it wasn’t paid directly by the publisher).

**^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.

****^Rodents of Unusual Size.  Look, just watch The Princess Bride, OK?

11 thoughts on “The dangerous temptation of acronyms

  1. Pavel Dodonov

    I always remember when a professor on my Masters qualification work counted how many acronyms I had in a single paragraph. I started avoiding acronyms ever since. In that paper I used acronyms for each study site and wrote a too-detailed results sections stating what was observed where. Now I always recommend people to avoid using acronyms and keeping at most two or three NCAs in a manuscript, as well as always explaing what the Well-Known Acronyms (WKAs) stand for even if it seems obvious, as what is a WKA for one person may look like an NCA to another. 🙂

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  2. Perlkonig

    I couldn’t agree more. In my plain language courses, I encourage writers to use acronyms all they want while writing, but then at the end do a search and replace to get rid of most of them, especially the NCAs. Acronyms like DNA are *better* known than the original word, so those are fine. I spend most of my time as an editor reminding authors that the document isn’t for *them*. They’re writing to another human being whose time is precious. Be empathetic and respectful.

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  3. Chris Mebane

    Hear, Hear (H2)!
    I have complained of unneeded use of RUAs and NCAs, but now I have a CA (curmudgeonly authority) to point to. In a recent review, I estimated that the author had saved close to 100 words in a 7000 word manuscript, at the cost of losing readers to whiplash flipping around in search of the first use of abbreviations.
    A related WPP: acronym fans can further induce whiplash for select readers (reviewers) by captioning their figures as “fig 1” and tucking away the actual captions elsewhere.
    I’d say abbreviate chemical names, units, and widely used mouthfuls, and not much else. Even the time honored tradition of of abbreviating the genus name often leaves me flipping around in irritation when they are many.

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  4. Char@Cornell

    This is so true! It is especially frustrating when new scientists are just getting started with reading and writing scientifically. Acronyms can act like an unofficial gatekeeper, and that might keep promising minds out of science. We don’t want that.

    By far, though, the most important piece of advice is in the footnotes: Watch The Princess Bride already! 🙂

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  5. Ken Hughes

    I find that the optimal approach that (i) avoids acronyms, (ii) still saves words, and (iii) doesn’t burden the reader is to use an abbreviated phrase where an acronym might otherwise go. In my PhD work, for example, I designated the the Canadian Arctic Archipelago as simply ‘the Archipelago’, not ‘the CAA’. Similarly, these days I work on diurnal warm layers which, after the first reference, I refer to as ‘warm layers’, not DWLs.

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  6. Jeremy Fox

    Only vaguely related story: the most out-of-leftfield candidacy exam question I’ve ever heard about concerned an acronym. A prof I know of once asked a PhD student during an exam “You’re reading a French biology journal and come across the acronym ADN. What does it stand for?” The student didn’t know (this was after all an English-language US university, with no second language requirement…). Turns out the answer is DNA. The French acronym puts the same letters in a different order. The prof apparently had just learned that earlier in the day and asked the question as an excuse to share this bit of trivia.

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