Why acronyms are annoying

Acronyms are annoying - here's why you shouldn't use them. Picture shows a number of bubles containing various different obscure acronyms.

‘I feel that barely a day goes by that somebody doesn’t toss a new acronym at me and react with surprise when I don’t recognize it,’ writes Kate Taylor.

Sound familiar? It might well do for your readers. SaaS, CRM, DDoS, ERP, PBX: the number of acronyms currently circulating the business world is FUBAR. Using them might save you two seconds of typing, but what about your reader? How long will it take them to figure out what you’re talking about?

Hang on – why not just Google it?

Google it? SMH. I wish it were that simple. So many acronyms use the same letters that choosing the right one is like picking a meal from a pub menu: the choice is as extensive as it is agonising.

So you say your business relies on a BDM? Let’s check acronym finder. Ah, that must be the barn door mafia, then. Or … is it black divorced male? No wait, maybe it means bachelor of dental medicine? Business development manager sounds right but then so does background debugger mode.

All this time, your readers are away from your web page trying to find the answer for a question they shouldn’t have to ask. Force your readers to ‘Google it’ and they might just search for another article instead.

Acronyms kill clarity

You might think your personas will definitely know what ROI is, but what’s to say they didn’t miss the memo? It doesn’t matter if your acronym is as popularly used as SMB or IPO, there’s one rule you must always follow: ADIB (always define in brackets).

Most of your readers aren’t highly experienced members of your profession. In fact, that’s probably exactly why they’re coming to your website for advice. Acronyms are annoying, but they’re far worse than that: use them without explanation and you risk excluding your earliest leads and killing your marketing process.

Always be clear with your readers, and they’ll always get the information they came to your website for. Accessibility isn’t dumbing down; it’s stronger marketing.

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12 Responses to Why acronyms are annoying

  1. Luke says:

    Yes, abbreviations can be more trouble than they’re worth. I particularly dislike the use of ‘SME’. People assume everyone knows what they’re talking about, but size is usually in the eye of the beholder. Up to *this* market cap, or *that* market cap? Maybe it depends on turnover instead. ‘SME’ doesn’t save time when you end up having to state the size explicitly anyway. And who actually talks about ‘enterprises’ rather than ‘companies’ or ‘businesses’?

    Of course, perhaps I’m really talking about Subject Matter Experts. Whoops.

    • Luke – I totally agree. Nobody who runs a small or medium-sized business or who works in one actually describes their business that way. It’s totally a government and marketing word. Generally, I try to translate it into ‘ambitious businesses’ or something like that for my clients but occasionally they turn My Fair Lady back into Pygmalion and insist on addressing their audience as ‘SMEs’.

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    While tracing my family history I spent many fruitless months trying to track down a Frank N.M.I Tolley, whose details I got from some military records. Lots of Frank Tolleys but not the specified one. Only later did I discover that NMI is a military acronym for “No Middle Initial”. And apparently there is even NKMI – no KNOWN middle initial….FUBAR indeed. And weeks of my life I’ll never see again!

  3. Tarun says:

    For me the use of acronyms is more like disrespecting the language. Every language has its own nuances and it makes sense to cherish it rather than get away with it. Writing is a craft which is painstakingly hard to come by. I guess the use of acronyms is more a by-product of a generation which wants to get the work done hastily without paying heed to the etiquette that governs it.

  4. Acronyms or initialisms can be useful from time to time, but need to be defined when first used and used sparingly. An example is when there is no single-word expression for something. Something can require the use of a phrasal descriptor, such as “reverse osmosis water purification unit.” Referring to that device as a “ROWPU” can useful, especially when the descriptor is in the adjective position.

    POOR: the reverse osmosis water purification unit MOTOR
    BETER: the ROWPU motor

    The biggest problem is using acronyms WITHOUT defining them. But in some cases, with some audiences, if you don’t use the acronym, the reader really doesn’t understand what you’re writing about.

  5. Lynn White says:

    Hmmmm.. acronyms do have their place.

    In the scientific arena, they are essential when referring to complex word combinations. e.g Poly-methylmethacrylate (PMMA) or Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). However, in these cases, it is the norm to give the full name followed by the acronym in the first instance and then simply refer to the acronym afterwards.

    If this is done for every acronym, no matter how “obvious” it may seem, then it removes the issue of people not understanding it. Anything that ends up in the internet is bound to be read, eventually, by someone who has never heard of it!

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