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Aaron Dalton

Empirical Editors: Acronyms

Image shows multiple acronyms
Image shows multiple acronyms; Handwritten Business acronyms
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I’m an in-house editor for the Alberta Energy Regulator. Authors are required to work with our group as they move towards publishing their documents. It’s essential that we cultivate and nurture relationships of respect and trust. One element of that is always being able to rationalize and justify our recommendations. There’s no room for personal pet peeves and arbitrary dos and don’ts.

Because academic staff are familiar with and typically respond well to empirical research, I decided to do a survey of research on topics of interest to editors. For example, how does negative phrasing affect readers (doi: 10.1016/S0022-5371(73)80057-X)? What about concrete vs. abstract words (doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2013.09.015)? What about the importance of clear subheadings? The result is my publicly available Empirical Research for Editors list. It informs the writing courses I teach, and occasionally I use it with individual authors. The survey is far from comprehensive, and I warmly welcome additions.

AAOB (Acronyms And Our Brains)

Our brains process acronyms (particularly unfamiliar ones) differently than regular words. The effect on processing fluency depends on a number of factors, including familiarity, imageability (how we make a mental image of the word), the nature of its “orthographic neighbourhood” (similarly spelled words), print-to-pronunciation patterns, and voicing characteristics. Additionally, one study showed how acronyms (again, particularly unfamiliar ones) trigger “attentional blink.”

Acronyms are helpful during the writing process. But it’s easier to read three words that we instantly understand than to have to pause at a rarely used and awkward three-letter acronym to remember what it means. In my plain language workshops, I encourage authors to just do a search and replace and eliminate unhelpful acronyms.

At the very least, be sure to have a list of acronyms and their definitions at the front of the document, even for acronyms you think are familiar. It will reduce misunderstandings and errors.

Further reading:


What’s your position on acronyms? Share your thoughts and stories below.


Previous post from Aaron Dalton: Language Resources for Non-Native English Speakers.

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13 Comments on “Empirical Editors: Acronyms”

  • Tim Green


    Some acronyms are better known than their long forms. The example of TNT (trinitrotoluene) springs to mind. Using that acronym probably speeds things up and makes reading easier. Others are at least as well known as their long forms, e.g. CO2 / carbon dioxide. Using CO2 instead of its long form may not be a bad thing, although contextual variables apply. But I’m only guessing. I have not researched this.

    • Great point! The term “unfamiliar” is of course relative to your audience. Most readers, I don’t think, would even see “TNT” as an acronym at all.

      But beware! I find writers often misjudge how familiar certain terms are. I am often told something along the lines of “This document is for industry. They will understand.” But when we actually go out and talk to industry, we discover they *don’t* always understand. Not everybody in a field has the same level of experience. What about students? What about people for whom English is not their native language?

    • Thanks for commenting over here, Steve! I enjoy reading your blog. I wish I had the resources to go out and do some of this research myself. Do let me know if you have some research I could add to my list!

  • Gael Spivak


    Thank you, Aaron. This is a great piece.

    Most acronyms benefit only the writer and are much more work for the reader. It’s good to see links to some evidence on that. I will be reading all those documents.

  • Roberta


    I’ve noticed that many of ‘my’ writers have internalized the rule to spell out an acronym on first use, following it with the acronym/initialism in brackets [Alberta Energy Regulator (AER)]. But then they do this with everything, even if they only mention the entity once! So the doc is littered with excess acronyms, which I have to remove. Funny how a rule gets learned partway. I do agree that fewer acronyms are better.

    • I guess that’s why we have jobs 🙂 “My” writers have more than enough to worry about. In the workshops I encourage them to focus on the things I *can’t* do for them (i.e., actually write their document). I am more than happy to help with the cleanup if it means they can focus on writing clear content.

      Fortunately tools like PerfectIt make it almost trivial to find acronym issues like this. No automated tool is perfect, but I was able to do consistency checks of a 1000-page document in about a day with high confidence of accuracy, which freed up my mental resources while I was actually editing to focus on the text and not the acronyms.

  • Anita Jenkins


    “There’s no room for personal pet peeves and arbitrary dos and don’ts.” Amen, Aaron. Editorial offices should have this printed and framed and hung up on the wall. Oops, is that a personal pet peeve?

    • Something for the EAC merchandise store 🙂

      I spend a lot of time dispelling the myth that editors are just pedants with red pens. A professional editor has to know how to pick their battles. There are “degrees of sin,” as it were. Not all transgressions are equally egregious. If letting an author keep a certain pet phrase means they’ll let me correct a more serious issue, then I’ll still consider my day a success.

  • I appreciate the depth you add to your blog posts, Aaron. And the time that it takes to gather and share what you’re discovering.

    Here’s an observation I would add to the stack of arguments against overusing acronyms. The acronym that stands easily without further explanation in the context of a business or government report is the one given on a report cover or letterhead or website. If the company logo is AER, readers will understand that AER means the company name that you have so boldly and clearly abbreviated for them in the document’s framework. Over the course of my career I have deleted hundreds of parenthetical explanations of the self-evident acronym.

    • Thank you, Virginia, and Amen! The same goes for simple abbreviations, too. Legal writing is replete with them: “…as per the Pipeline Act (the Act),” for example. If there’s only one act, you don’t need to define it. Just refer to “the act.” There’s no ambiguity. And if there’s more than one act, than a simple capital letter isn’t going to be enough to differentiate. But I better not get started down the capitalization rabbit hole 🙂

  • Frances Peck


    Aaron, you have unearthed a true goldmine of resources in your Empirical Research for Editors (ERE) list. 🙂 Thank you for contributing so concretely and generously to our understanding of plain language.

    • Thank you, Frances. There’s lots of room for improvement! I hope people will contribute what they have squirreled away in their bookmarks and bookshelves. There are a couple more topics I wrote articles about that should appear on the blog eventually.

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