One legal scholar calls abbreviations a “menace to prose” (Kimble, 2006). Abbreviations were once intended to serve the audience by shortening long phrases. However, abbreviations have proliferated so much in government writing that they constantly require the reader to look back to earlier pages, or to consult an appendix, to puzzle out what’s being said.
The best solution is to find a simplified name for the entity you want to abbreviate. This gives readers meaningful content that helps them remember what you’re talking about. It may be a bit longer, but the gain in clarity and ease of reading is worth it.
In most cases, you don’t need to define this nickname the first time you use it, unless you’re using lots of different nicknames. When you’re using a nickname for the main topic you’re writing about, don’t insult your users and waste their time. For example, in a paper about Resource Advisory Councils, don’t tell them that when you say “Council” you mean the “Resource Advisory Council.”
|Engineering Safety Advisory Committee||ESAC||the committee|
|Small-quantity handlers of universal wastes||SQHUW||waste handlers|
|Fire and Police Employee Relations Act||FPERA||the Act|
If everyone knows an abbreviation, use it without explanation
There’s a short list of abbreviations that have entered common usage. When you use them, don’t define them—you’re just taking up space and annoying your user. Make sure the abbreviation you’re using is on the list. Examples include IBM, ATM, BMW, PhD, CIA, and FBI.
A closely related guideline is, “don’t define something that’s obvious to the user.” Most federal agencies, when writing a letter responding to an inquiry, insist on defining the agency name, as in, “Thank you for writing to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about your concerns.” The letterhead says the name of the agency. The person wrote to the agency, and now the agency is writing back. The user is not going to be confused about what FAA means!
If you must abbreviate
Of course, there are some situations in which you can’t avoid an abbreviation. Always define an abbreviation the first time you use it, for example, “The American Journal of Plain Language Studies (AJPLA).”
Limit the number of abbreviations you use in one document to no more than three, and preferably two. Spell out everything else. If you’ve used abbreviations for the two or three most common items, it’s unlikely that the other items occur so frequently you can’t spell them out every time.
When you’re considering whether to use an abbreviation, or how many you can get away with in a document, remember that they should make it easier for your users. If they make it harder, you’ve failed to write for your audience.
- Garner, Bryan A., A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2nd edition, 1995, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, pp. 447-488.
- Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 46-48.
- Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, p. 155.