The Copy Corner: Guide to Using Acronyms

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When is casual writing okay?

Acronyms make your sentences easier to read and increase the flow of your sentences. After all, who wants to read “the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration” 10 times? Instead, you can simply write “Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)” on first reference and then refer to it as the FMCSA from then on.

Here are a few tricks to ensure acronyms are working for your content not against it.

Always Write the Full Name First

This is important. Even if it’s an acronym that you think everyone knows (e.g., CIA, FBI) write out the name first. And remember to place the acronym in parenthesis after the first reference, e.g., Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Without the acronym in parentheses directly after the word, your readers may know what you’re referring to later.

This is especially true when you might be referring to various things. For example, lawyers often discuss the Social Security Administration, Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability, and Social Security Disability Insurance together. Now if I said SSA, you could probably figure out that I meant the Social Security Administration, but what if I said SSD? Am I referring to Social Security Disability or Social Security Disability Insurance?

Again, it’s pretty easy to figure out what the acronyms are referring to, but that’s the thing: You don’t want your readers to spend time trying to figure out what it is you’re referring to. You want to make it as easy as possible. 

It’s easier for your readers if they see: “The Social Security Administration (SSA) offers Social Security disability (SSD) benefits through the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) programs.” on first reference instead of, “The SSA offers SSD benefits through the SSI and SSDI programs.”

Pro-tip: Once you finish writing your content, proofread it. In addition to catching any mistakes, it allows you to ensure your acronyms all have first references.

Consider How Many Acronyms You Use

You can have too much of a good thing. While acronyms can help the flow of your sentences, too many can jam up a sentence or headline. Consider the following:

  • You can submit an RFC assessment to the SSA to prove that you qualify for SSI and SSDI.

Pro-tip: If you think you have too many acronyms in one sentence, use the full name of one of the acronyms in your content. Use the shortest one, the one you use the least, or the least-known acronym. In this case, it probably makes most sense to spell out residual functional capacity because it is likely the least-known acronym and probably appears less in the content than SSA, SSI, or SSDI.

Make Sure You Use the Right Acronym

When I worked on my university’s newspaper, I would see this all the time. Writers would use the wrong acronym or invent one to avoid repeating the name over and over again. But acronyms only work if they are clear or actually exist.

For example, the acronym for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is CDC not CDCP. Make sure you use the right, most well-known acronym.

The point of acronyms is clarity and ease. Always keep that in mind. Do not muddy your work and clarity with unclear and undefined acronyms.

Pro-tip: Do a quick Google search; if your acronym doesn’t show up in one of the first three or four results, it’s probably not real and not your best option.

Be sure to use these tips the next time you use acronyms in your content. For help with content writing: 888-521-3880.