Great Legal Content #1 - Abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms

Elon Musk described the excessive use of acronyms as ‘a significant impediment to communication’. Sue Bramall recaps the differences between an abbreviation, acronym and initialism.

Back in May 2010, innovator and entrepreneur Elon Musk sent an email to the entire staff of his company SpaceX with the subject line ‘Acronyms Seriously Suck’. 

Describing the excessive use of acronyms as ‘a significant impediment to communication’ he was concerned about the proliferation of acronyms in his company.  In practical terms he explained that ‘no one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don't want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance.’ He remarked that ‘this is particularly tough on new employees.’

I suspect we have all been in at least one meeting where we have lost the thread, and have come away with a list of terms to look up or ask a friend to explain.  At my grand old age, I am no longer afraid to stop the speaker and ask what they mean.  If I don’t know, then there is a chance that others don’t know either and I’m happy to risk looking uninformed for everyone’s benefit.

Unfortunately I have also been to conferences where it is not possible to interrupt and where speakers use abbreviations without bothering to explain them.  Nowadays, if there is decent wifi, you can usually look up the abbreviation on your mobile phone but doing so takes your concentration away from the speech. 

Every community has its jargon - lawyers and marketers are just as guilty as space engineers and doctors - but to the outsider, jargon creates an unnecessary barrier.

Remember, that if you are writing for marketing purposes then your objective is to engage with your reader.  You want them to understand what you are writing about immediately, particularly online where a reader can quickly surf away to find a more accessible article.

Universities often teach students to abbreviate after the first use of a phrase. For a professor who may have to read numerous essays on the same subject (about which they are very familiar) then the abbreviation is unlikely to cause any problems. 

Similarly, a university may have a list of abbreviations for use in references, however this list may not be available to the wider world. Even the Harvard Law School Library website recognises the problem, commenting that ‘Abbreviations used in legal citation are often completely inscrutable’.

You will be used to abbreviating common legal terms as a shorthand with colleagues but, when you are writing for a lay audience, it is a good idea to restrict your use of abbreviations to those which are well known by all. 

It is worth recapping on the differences between an abbreviation, an acronym and an initialism.

An abbreviation is a shortened form of a word or phrase, used as a substitute, for example:

  • Dr. is an abbreviation of Doctor
  • © is an abbreviation of copyright
  • Lawtech is an abbreviation of ‘technology for the legal profession’.

Initialisms are where the abbreviation is spelled out letter by letter, for example:

  • VAT for value added tax
  • ECJ for European Court of Justice
  • LPA for lasting power of attorney.

Acronyms are where a new word sound is created from the initial letters, for example:

  • WIPO for World Intellectual Property Organisation
  • Cafcass for Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service.

Some of the problems that can arise through the use of abbreviations include:

1. Abbreviations have different meaning to different communities – remember that your online audience is global.  For example, depending on the reader, LPA may stand for:

  • lasting power of attorney
  • local planning authority
  • left pulmonary artery
  • lakhs per annum
  • licenced public accountant

2. Sparing use of a single familiar abbreviation is usually not too problematical, but as soon as you start introducing multiple abbreviations in the same article, it can become hard to follow particularly where the abbreviations are similar. For example, a financial services lawyer may be familiar with the differences between the following abbreviations but how many other readers would have a smooth read of an article that used all three repeatedly?

  • FCA (Financial Conduct Authority),
  • FAMR (Financial advice markets review)
  • FEMR (Fair and effective markets review).

3. Falling back on abbreviations is often a sign of laziness in drafting and editing, as it is usually possible to rewrite a sentence with a variety of perfectly understandable alternatives.

4. Finally, if you have written the article to go on a website or blog, then you will be missing an important trick.  The reason for adding regular content online is to attract viewers via internet search, but an article stuffed with abbreviations could easily be missed by its target audience.  A potential client is more likely to search for ‘power of attorney in Exeter’ than ‘LPA in Exeter’.

Elon Musk concluded that ‘The key test for an acronym is to ask whether it helps or hurts communication’.  In my experience, acronyms rarely enhance the experience for the reader.  By all means use the acronyms while creating your first draft, but then go through your article with CTRL F (Press the Control and F buttons together to find each use) and polish up your article with an elegant replacement.

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