by Molly Rookwood
Published at 2019-09-24
As anyone who edits (or writes) non-fiction knows, few things are as frustratingly difficult to keep straight as acronyms and initialisms. Two weeks ago, TEC editor Ronnie Morris broke down the difference between, and history and uses of, acronyms and initialisms. For anyone who needs a refresher on what those are, read Ronnie’s blog post on acronyms and initialisms, and then check back in here for some tips on using them effectively.
I recently worked on a book about a UN (an initialism, since it isn’t pronounced “un”) policy that relied heavily on acronyms and initialisms. I was unsure what to do, however, when I realized that the main initialism used was a shortened version of the standard initialism used by the UN. After a very helpful talk with Beth (always ask your professional colleagues for help!), we decided that the best approach was to: 1) introduce the document in question in its full name, with the initialism used in this book in parentheses; and 2) add an endnote acknowledging that the official initialism for the document is slightly different, but that for the purposes of this book, a shorter form is used.
When determining the correct acronym/initialism to use,
DO: Investigate online or in a reference book to ensure that the correct form is being used.
DO: Make sure that the spelled-out version of the acronym/initialism is correct. This is more of a problem than many people realize. In my freelance work, I have recently had to fix several instances where CIJA, the acronym for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, was written out as “Canada Israel Jewish Affairs.” These mistakes came from different writers, each of whom believed that this was the long form of “CIJA.”
DON’T: Assume you know what an acronym/initialism stands for. The most recent debate of this sort online has been over what “AR” stands for in “AR-15.” After doing some research, I learned that it does not, in fact, stand for “assault rifle,” but rather “ArmaLite,” although the gun is in fact an assault rifle.
DON’T: Assume that every initial has to be included or that the short form will be pronounced exactly as it is spelled. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is shortened to “MFA,” without the “o” for “of,” but the Museum of Modern Art in New York becomes “MoMA,” with the “o.” The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design becomes “NSCAD,” with only the important words initialized, but is pronounced “Nas/cad.”
Your style sheet is a guide for you, for the author, and for anyone at the publishing house who deals with the manuscript. My advice is to include every single acronym/initialism you use. If there are only a few, like “US” and “UK,” I either put them in word spellings or include them in my punctuation section to indicate whether they should have periods after the letters. If you are editing a book with lots of acronyms/initialisms, I suggest giving them their own section on the style sheet with the definitions of all but the most standard.
For example, an entry on a style sheet could be:
UFO – Unidentified Flying Object; pl. UFOs (no apostrophe); “the UFO’s shape” (possessive)
The more specific you can be on your style sheet, the better. When organizing acronyms/initialisms on your style sheet,
DO: Be consistent! This is the rule for all of editing, but is especially important here. Make sure that you treat all acronyms/initialisms in the same way, both in the text and on your style sheet.
DO: Include definitions, how to deal with plurals, how to deal with possessives, and how to punctuate.
DON’T: Leave out acronyms/initialisms because you think that people are familiar with them.
Ronnie’s blog, which I linked at the top of this post, does an excellent job explaining the difficulty of how to indicate plurals in your acronyms/initialisms. I recently worked with an author who didn’t include an “s” at all if the noun was early in the initialism. By taking this approach, “Rodents of Unusual Size,” rather than becoming “ROUSes,” would simply be “ROUS,” which doesn’t work nearly as well.
When pluralizing acronyms/initialisms,
DO: Include an “s” (or “es” if following an “S”) to indicate the plural.
DO: Only include an apostrophe if indicating a possessive. Since acronyms/initialisms are always multiple letters and capitalized, it should be clear that the “s” is not part of the initialism.
DON’T: Change your format depending on the short form! Our most frequent piece of advice on the blog and in general is to be consistent, and that is certainly true here. If some of your initialisms use periods, all of them should. If the placement of an acronym or initialism makes something unclear, rewrite the sentence rather than disrupting your consistency within the text.
Non-fiction writers sometimes struggle with being too familiar with their topics. Someone who is deeply knowledgeable about a topic may need reminders that readers lack their expertise. Make sure any acronyms/initialisms that could cause confusion or be unfamiliar to readers are written out in long form the first time they are used. I also suggest including a glossary of terms and acronyms if you’re working with a book that uses lots of short form.
When working with acronyms/initialisms in text,
DO: Define all terms when they first appear.
DO: Consider including a glossary for texts with lots of short form.
DON’T: Use acronyms for terms that only appear once or twice in the entire text.
DON’T: Use excessive lingo or jargon in a book not directed at experts. I once edited a dystopian, futuristic military novel riddled with initialisms and short form that I couldn’t figure out, even with the help of Google. Query your author if you are unsure what an acronym or initialism means!
Much of this advice is consistent with advice about any editing project you may have. As with anything else you edit,
Molly Rookwood is a freelance editor and grammar-enthusiast based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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