Abbreviations Have Nothing to Do With Informality

Wise counsel from Richard Lauchman, author of Punctuation at Work: Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style:

Abbreviate for Clarity, Not As a Rule

Many people say (because someone once said it to them) that abbreviations of any sort make your writing informal. Such a remark doesn’t get us anywhere; it merely opens the door to endless philosophical debate. And there is never a victor in a conflict about “formality” because definitions vary wildly.

What we want is writing that fits the occasion and the readership — and whether it’s “formal” or “informal” by any individual’s definition should not be a concern. Our primary concern should be clarity; the next should be economy.

Because documents vary in their conventions of style, commandments such as “It’s always best to avoid abbreviations” and “It’s always best to abbreviate” are equally oversimplified. If I were you, I wouldn’t get caught up in considerations of formality when I’m trying to decide whether to abbreviate. I encourage you to behave practically. Abbreviate when doing so would not distract, when the abbreviated form is what the reader is used to, and when the abbreviation would save the reader time.

For Example

When the abbreviation is what we’re used to, the spelled-out version can be puzzling. Many people who have never heard of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have a good sense of what OSHA does. Isn’t it true that IBM is more familiar to you than International Business Machines Corporation? Isn't it true that NASA makes sense to you more quickly than National Aeronautics and Space Administration? Formality is not the concern here. Clarity is.

We conventionally use a.m. and p.m., for example, and if someone actually wrote six ante meridiem or four post meridiem, we would have to ponder the meaning — and then we would wonder what was wrong with him.

1 comment:

  1. I've been sharing Lauchman's commonsense tips with my proposal colleagues. Unfortunately, most will continue writing "the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA)." I'm surprised they don't write "the United States of America (USA)."