March 7, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: acronyms & contractions

Posted in acronyms, contractions, initialisms at 10:41 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Articles with acronyms

A reader writes:

I have a question about articles before acronyms.  How do you decide whether to use “a” or “an”?

Acronyms are abbreviations that are made from first letters of words and pronounced as a word (e.g.,  NASCAR, OPEC, NASA). Initialisms are abbreviations that are also made up from the first letters of words but are pronounced by the letters (e.g., NBC, UCLA, EPA). The distinction isn’t really important though, and many people will use the term, ‘acronyms,’ for both—being the far more well-known term.

Here is what you need to know about acronyms and initialisms.

In the US, these abbreviations are almost always capitalized. This practice varies in Great Britain.

We used to put a period after every letter. We don’t anymore.

Sometimes acronyms seep into the language and become words, and then, we don’t have capitalize them. Laser stands for  Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Who knew? But we don’t have to capitalize it now, because we consider laser a word. Radar is another example. It’s the acronym for  Radio Detection And Ranging—please ignore the fact that it uses the first two letters of ‘radio,’ and I will do the same. But radar is now just a word and doesn’t have to be capitalized. My last example is scuba which stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. I was going to say something about how google was a wonderful thing, but I noticed that it also listed Super Cool Undersea Bible Adventure as a possibility for scuba, so I will refrain.

So what article to use with an acronym? It all depends on pronunciation. “Huh?” You might say, “Pronunciation? Since when did sound have anything to do with the rules of grammar?” “I know,” I say. “All this language stuff can be really kooky.”

But sound, pronunciation it is. This is it: say the acronym out loud. If it starts with a vowel sound—notice I said vowel sound, not vowel—then the article you want it ‘an.’


An FBI agent

An AHRQ grant

If it starts with a consonant sound, then it calls for ‘a.’


A SNAFU (You know, it’s really hard to think of an acronym when you are purposely trying to.)

A DNR order

What else do you need to know about acronyms?

The first time you use the acronym, IN BOTH THE ABSTRACT AND THE PAPER, spell it out, and put the acronym in parentheses after.

An Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) grant

Finally, if creating an acronym, try not to use one that is generally associated with something else. For instance, the following could cause confusion and, at best, is really awkward.

Our study looked at New Flavored Lemons (NFL)…

 And that’s pretty much it. I’ll just add this. There is a tendency, today, to create acronyms that are very contrived—you have to bend over backwards and twist the words around to discern how the acronym was ever developed. I would stay away from that. Just keep in mind our goal of clarity, simplicity, and grace, and you’ll be fine.

Tip 2: Contractions

A reader writes:

 Isn’t there a rule somewhere NOT to use contractions in scientific writing?

Example: don’t, won’t, isn’t

Well, yes and no. I know—I’m sorry. It’s just that language changes over time.

It used to be that it was an absolute to never use a contraction in scientific writing. But remember, it used to be that we only used the passive voice and never used the first person in scientific writing, and I think we can agree that the changing of those rules is all to the good.

By the way, I love that I received these two emails in the same time frame, because they are both about abbreviations. Contractions are a kind of abbreviation. We’ve taken letters out of words to abbreviate them, replacing said letters with an apostrophe.

There definitely isn’t unanimity about whether it’s appropriate to use contractions in formal  scientific writing. AMA Manual of Style takes a bold stance and say that it ‘is usually avoided in formal writing.’ I found a stronger view at the University of Sydney:

‘Contractions are not acceptable in academic writing. In fact, they are not valued in formal writing in general, including most forms of professional writing. They make your writing sound more spoken and conversational rather than academic and analytical. Avoid them altogether in formal writing and use the full forms of all words.

This sentence is not acceptable in academic writing as it contains a contraction (haven’t):

These theories haven’t been proved, and the scientific world must accept this.

It should be written like this:

These theories have not been proved, and the scientific world must accept this.’

The Chicago Manual of Style and Garner’s Modern American Usage both endorse the use of contractions in formal writing as long as they promote clarity. According to Garner:

‘The common fear is that using contractions can make the writing seem breezy. For most of us, though, that risk is nil.’

That’s true enough. No one’s going to mistake our scientific writing for the prose of a graphic novel.

[NOTE: what’s wrong with comic book, anyhow?]

My advice is to check the journal you’d like to publish in, and see to what extent it uses contractions. Getting published is important to our careers, so that is always something to keep in mind. Use contractions judiciously. Use them if it keeps the writing from sounding too stiff. Use them if it helps communicate more clearly. Don’t be haphazard. Don’t use them if they could lead to ambiguity (e.g., ‘he’d’ can mean ‘he had’ or ‘he would’). Like all else when it comes to language usage, be careful and be purposeful.


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