FIVE WAYS TO FAIL WHEN USING ABBREVIATIONS AND HOW TO AVOID THEM
We counted up the number of mistakes when using
abbreviations in documents published online, and the results make depressing
reading. So here are five things you can check so that your documents make the
best impression and you make sure you get proposals, reports and articles
What We Tested
We used PerfectIt,
Intelligent Editing's add-in for MS Word that locates undefined abbreviations,
to check 3000 documents (randomly selected with the Google search term 'Final
Report'). We split the results into smaller groups depending on the document
size because the chance of making a mistake increases with larger documents.
Also note, there is a difference between acronyms,
abbreviations and initialisms. For the purpose of simplicity, we use
'abbreviations' to refer to all three.
1. Define the abbreviation the first time you use it
Not every abbreviation has to be defined. However, if you
are going to define an abbreviation in the text, why would you wait till the
second, third or fourth time to put the definition in? It sounds bad, and it
However, in the 1900 documents we looked at that were over
1500 words, more than a third included at least one abbreviation with this
mistake. The worst had 19 abbreviations that came up in the text pages
before their definitions.
2. Define the abbreviation once
If you decide to define an abbreviation, it should usually
be defined only once. However, there are exceptions. In a report with sections
or a book with chapters, you may decide to define the abbreviation at the start
of each section/chapter.
Again, around a third of documents over 1500 words contained
an abbreviation that was defined more than once. One document (that was under
20,000 words) had an abbreviation that was defined in 12 locations. We did a
manual check and none of those related to any section or chapter headings. We
spoke to top professional editor and director of the Communication Central
conference, Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, who
confirmed the finding: "Some house styles prefer to repeat the definition with
each new section, but in the work I edit, repeated definitions often turn out
to be unintentional, so they need to be fixed."
3. Refer to the Abbreviation Consistently
Is it 'NASA' or 'N.A.S.A.'? What about TFL or TfL? The best
approach is to check their website to make sure that you use
the correct version (they prefer NASA and TfL, respectively). If
you're still not sure, check a style guide. The
worst thing you can do is be inconsistent. Unfortunately, like most errors, the
proportion of mistakes increases quickly with document size.
The proportion of documents with consistent use of abbreviations falls with larger documents. (Enlarge image)
4. Just Use One Definition for Each Abbreviation
This is perhaps the most important thing to check because
not doing it renders documents almost incomprehensible. ITT could mean
Invitation to Tender or International Trade Team, so you must not abbreviate
both names or phrases that way in the same document. Otherwise, the reader will
struggle to figure out what your sentences even mean.
Fortunately, this error is quite rare. It only came up in
thirty of the documents we tested. Nevertheless, it's worth checking carefully
to make sure it doesn't creep into anything that you're working on.
5. Remember to Use the Abbreviation after Defining It
Abbreviations help keep your writing legible and concise.
But what's the point in using them if you continue to write the word out in
full after defining it? Unfortunately, it's all too common an error. We found
that almost 40% of documents over 1500 words had at least one abbreviation
treated this way.
These mistakes all add up. One document may have
abbreviations appearing before definitions, abbreviations defined twice and
abbreviations spelled out after being defined. When we add all the errors
together, more than 60% of documents over 1500 words contain at least one
mistake with abbreviations. On the bright side, that means you can easily make
your documents better than the rest of the pack by paying extra attention to
How to Make Sure Your Documents are Right
If you're checking text manually, it's worth reading through
your document an extra time just to make sure there are no mistakes with
abbreviations. This is time-consuming, but when you focus on one type of
mistake, you're less likely to miss it. This is especially important in
documents that have more than one author, because when documents are pasted
together, it's easy to end up with both repetition and skipped definitions.
An even better approach is to use PerfectIt. PerfectIt
offers a much faster way to check for these errors. Instead of reading all the
way through your document again, PerfectIt can check it for you and in seconds
locate any abbreviations that are:
- used before they are defined
- defined more than once
- written in two different ways
- written with two different definitions
- spelled out even after they are defined.
In addition, PerfectIt will find
that have not been defined and can automatically generate a Table of
Abbreviations. That can make a big difference, because it saves time checking
and makes documents easier to read. As a result, with PerfectIt, your
proposals, articles and reports are more likely to be accepted. PerfectIt is
free to try, so download