Q&A: Why you shouldn’t put acronyms in parentheses

Q. Wayne writes from the business school with a question about abbreviations and acronyms:

“I recall that your class taught me to not follow proper nouns that you plan to abbreviate later with an abbreviation in parenthesis. Ex: Master of Accounting (MAcc) students ate lunch yesterday. I want to be a MAcc student. Is this correct?”

A. Yes, the the more fluid way is to create a parenthetical with a brief explanation. If MAcc is an abbreviation you use regularly but new students might not know, you might introduce it this way:

Students who pursue a Master of Accounting, which is commonly called MAcc, must complete …

Or even shorter:  Students who pursue a Master of Accounting, or MAcc, must complete …

(An aside: MAcc is an acronym, formed from the first letters of the main words and pronounced as if it were its own word. An abbreviation simply condenses a word in some form: acct. for account; CIA for Central Intelligence Agency; or U.S. for United States. The difference is that MAcc is pronounced MACK, but CIA isn’t pronounced SEE-a, nor U.S. pronounced us.)

As with so many things in language, it’s not wrong to put terms in parentheses. Rather, it’s clunky, it stops the flow of a sentence and it doesn’t really explain what you mean.

AP says that if an abbreviation or acronym isn’t well known then you should avoid it.

I agree in principle, but I’m not willing to go that far. I think there are legitimate uses for abbreviations and acronyms as long as they are used consciously and sparingly.

In Wayne’s case, MAcc is a perfectly acceptable term in the business school and its publications or other communication. I wouldn’t use the term for a general audience, though.

My general advice is this: Think about your audience members. Will use of the abbreviation or acronym make things clearer for them? Will they see the abbreviation or acronym again? That is, is this a rare term that could be stated in another – perhaps clearer – way?

Always look for substitutes. Rather than concocting a monstrosity like CAcAb (the Committee on Acronyms and Abbreviations), try using the committee, the organization or some other generic term.

I made up CAcAb, but you don’t have to look far to find organizations whose abbreviated forms fall flat. Take the National Automobile Dealers Association, whose abbreviated form, NADA, spells out the Spanish word for nothing.

That takes on a whole new meaning when you see “About NADA” on the organization’s website.

Wait, wasn’t there an entire television show about that?

And then there’s the poor Wisconsin Tourism Federation, which was forced to change its name to the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin because of the popularization of WTF. Alas, most people who used WTF weren’t thinking about Wisconsin tourism.

The lesson: Use abbreviations and acronyms sparingly and with caution.

OK?

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