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August 3, 2023

Acronyms and Abbreviations: a Shortcut to Suffering If You're Neurodivergent

Lucy Bishop


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Once upon a time, I was in a meeting. (In fact, hundreds of times I've been in meetings... but I'm trying to tell a story here, so let’s go with "once"!) We were looking at some fairly complicated statistics, but it was all clearly presented and easy to understand. Lots of nice graphs and easy-to-follow bullets. I was taking notes, feeling confident that I was following what was being said, and sure that I could participate in any discussion that might follow.

But then confusion struck. The presenter decided to say this: "So to get our SEO up higher, we really need some strong CTAs. Otherwise, our BR is going to stay high. What we need is some good CRO. So if we could all go back and add some really great CTAs by EOP today that would be great."

I looked around at my fellow colleagues. They were all nodding along.

"Why?" I thought to myself. "Why are they nodding, when what's been said is clearly some form of alien language? Do they understand it? Because I certainly don't. But I don't want to look stupid. Best to just keep quiet and nod along like I understand it all. No one will notice."

And they all lived utterly confused every after. The end.

(Not really. Let's continue... )

Acronyms and Abbreviations: Why Do We Use Them? Why?!

I cannot fully express just how much I hate abbreviations. When I'm reading a sentence and one appears suddenly, without warning (and with no explanation), I'll be honest, I just want to throw my computer out the window.

But, in reality – and because I'd then have to have a very complicated and uncomfortable discussion with my boss – I basically just ignore the sentence. I gloss over it and make up some phrase that I think the letters probably stand for. CTA? "Clever Thing Alright"?

Abbreviations are like hiccups in an article that otherwise would have been enjoyable to read. Really annoying hiccups that I wish would just go away. And, while most people use abbreviations to communicate things quickly, I'd argue that what they're actually doing is distorting meaning and alienating others. In fact, they often leave me feeling pretty stupid and excluded from the “aren't-we-so-clever" abbreviation club.

The History of Abbreviations

While writing this blog, I thought I'd try to understand what exactly lies at the heart of our apparent dependency on business acronyms and abbreviations. Interestingly, I discovered that they actually stretch back to ancient Rome. But abbreviations really took hold when publishers used them to try to save precious space on printed pages.

Spies have often used acronyms or abbreviated words to code their messages. (Trying to understand them is often like trying to decode some secret language!)

And abbreviations have become particularly popular for shortening lengthy technical or scientific terms. In fact, research published by elifesciences found that over one million acronyms and abbreviations have been introduced since 1950. Interestingly, many of these are exactly the same, but have different meanings. The abbreviation UA, for example, has 18 different meanings in medicine alone.

The research also revealed that our increasing use of acronyms and abbreviations, particularly in scientific papers, has led to a "knowledge-ignorance paradox." Essentially, the number of scientific papers being published has increased, but the knowledge being imparted has reduced. Because scientific papers are often written in an overly complex way that leaves the reader scratching their head.

And while it's true that some abbreviations are so well-known they could be considered words in themselves – DNA, for example, or CIA, FBI, LOL – these are rare. And new abbreviations (many of which I suspect people have just made up because they couldn't be bothered to type out a full phrase or are trying to sound clever) are way too common.

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Acronyms and Abbreviations Vs. Accessibility

Accessibility is now a big buzzword for many organizations and content creators. And acronyms and abbreviations, while they do often have their uses, aren't particularly accessible. Screen readers can't read them – or read them incorrectly. And, for people who have neurodivergences that make reading challenging, they can be annoying at best, inscrutable at worst.

I've recently had the wonderful privilege of running a neurodiversity panel at work to learn more about neurodivergence and the challenges that people who are neurodivergent experience in the workplace. Among the panel are people with a range of neurodivergent conditions, including autism, dyslexia, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (or ADHD – sorry about the abbreviation there).

One comment that came from all of the participants on the panel – and I mean every single one – was this: STOP USING ACRONYMS AND ABBREVIATIONS!

So, I asked the panel to explain further. Why are abbreviations so annoying for people who are neurodivergent? Unsurprisingly, they had a lot to say...

Melanie Bell, Content Editor and Writer at Mind Tools

"Acronyms and abbreviations are part of office jargon that many organizations use more than they need to! It can be hard to figure out or remember what acronyms stand for. I think most employees would benefit if they were used a lot less – and were clearly explained if they absolutely needed to be used.

"I used to work for a think tank that used a ton of acronyms in papers. They had a few that were general knowledge in the field, so not spelled out. But most of them were explained in an abbreviation key, and also spelled out upon first use. I think sometimes abbreviations are useful for conveying complex information, especially when we're using the same long one(s) repeatedly. But we need to check for understanding. It's part of being clear and kind. It barely takes any extra time to say what an abbreviation stands for when you use it in a meeting or talk. Communication should be about making sure people understand what we're saying. Don't make it the listener's responsibility to say, 'I don't know – explain, please.'"

Jason Richardson, Talent Development Lead at Emerald Group

"I find them overwhelming and overused. Most of the time, they don't add to the conversation, and there are so many with the same letters... it's just unnecessary! Say the total words once so everyone knows the context, then crack on.

"I've found that I need to ignore them if I understand the context. Or if I'm lost, I ask what it means, which wastes time – which is ironic as they were meant to save time.

"Having an acronym or abbreviation key wouldn't work for me either, especially in publishing, as there are loads. For example, everything in my business starts with an E, as all the products begin with an E. They really need to ditch them, or at least do a one-month amnesty where we all see what happens when we don't use them. If they're missed, then bring them back, and I'll embrace them as much as I can."

Gabi Hart, Product Manager at Emerald Group

"I have dyslexia and I find acronyms and abbreviations are always a hurdle for me to overcome and I need time to decode them. Even if I've used them before, it can sometimes be hard to remember the actual meaning behind them rather than just seeing them as a string of letters.

"Using acronyms or abbreviations with no 'key' can make me feel that I don't understand something that someone else feels is so obvious it needs no explanation, which is disheartening. It makes the assumption everyone knows what you're talking about, which can be dividing to other staff, especially neurodivergent and newer staff.

"The first time an acronym or abbreviation is used in a piece of text, ensuring that the full phrase is used is useful. That way I can check what it stands for within that text, without having to google it or find an internal document to explain."

Emily Vaz, Business Partner at Mind Tools

"I have a mixed relationship with acronyms and abbreviations – sometimes they're great, and sometimes they're really challenging. I can often mistake one I'm not familiar with for an actual word which has, on occasion, made me look a little silly. I've found that I've become very accustomed to not being familiar with a word or a word looking odd, so sometimes an abbreviation doesn't obviously stand out as being an abbreviation.

"I also struggle with abbreviations where the letters don't reflect the full name. For example, LWOP (leave without pay). The extra O throws me off. And in ETA (estimated time of arrival) not having the O also throws me off. That being said, abbreviations I use regularly and am very familiar with, I prefer to use – such as FTE (full-time equivalent). I use that one a lot, and would struggle to spell 'equivalent' – so it definitely helps me out.

"They can be tricky, especially if it's a particularly niche abbreviation that can't be easily googled. I'm never usually afraid to ask, but I do worry that I'm asking what a word means rather than an abbreviation. As I mentioned, I sometimes struggle to know whether an abbreviation is an actual word or not. If I don't feel comfortable asking, I tend to ignore it or just try and guess what it might mean. I appreciate if people put what it means in brackets at least once, so that, if it's referred to again, I can go back and check what it means.

"An acronym or abbreviation key is great, or having acronyms in a separate color or underlined, so I can identify that it's not a word."

Jaye O'Farrell-Stevens, Customer Support Manager at Mind Tools

"I hate acronyms and abbreviations with a passion, and I hate them despite my dyslexia, although my dyslexia certainly makes it worse. When I started my engineering studies, if we used an abbreviation, we would be 'hit over the head,' and it was drilled into us that they are the reserve of people who wish to sound intelligent without being intelligent. They are exclusionary and presumptive and, by forcing you to say, "Sorry, what does that stand for?" or just having to pretend you know, make you feel silly, and the other person mighty.

"When I first joined Mind Tools, I think every second utterance was an abbreviation, and I felt completely 'at sea' – but didn't want to make a fool of myself by asking what it stood for. Because presumably, if everyone knows, surely I should. I felt so stupid and a complete impostor. I genuinely came to fear one-on-one meetings when I couldn't discreetly look up what SEO stood for!

"I think the use of acronyms and abbreviations is a way to show you're 'in the club,' part of the team – that you really get it. It's a way for people to express themselves and assert their knowledge or position in a team. I think they're really exclusionary and I try and avoid using them as much as possible."

How to Use Acronyms and Abbreviations the Right Way

As much as I'd like to say, "Acronyms: please bogoff forever" (and I don't mean buy-one-get-one-free), unfortunately they're here, and here to stay, at least in some cases. I mean, I'm hardly going to say deoxyribonucleic acid in full every time I talk about DNA (not that I talk about DNA a lot, but you get the picture). Nonetheless, there are some simple things that we can all do to use acronyms and abbreviations appropriately and in a way that isn't exclusionary or presumptive:

  1. Know your audience. Don't make assumptions about what acronyms and abbreviations people know and don't know, especially if you're giving a presentation or are in a team meeting.
  1. Spell it out. It's polite to say or spell out the phrase in its entirety, at least in the first instance. That way people can refer back to it as they read through the text.
  1. Avoid making up acronyms or abbreviations. There are already too many, so avoid making more up! It's fine to use common acronyms or abbreviations that are widely used in society or in your particular industry. But even then, try to limit yourself to three or fewer per document.
  1. Use periods or spaces between letters if creating content for the web. This is best practice for accessibility because screen readers will read the letters individually, rather than as one word. It also signals to readers that this is an acronym or abbreviation that you're using, not a word.
  1. Provide an acronym and abbreviation "key" or set up an acronym expander. If you use acronyms and abbreviations regularly, consider providing a glossary that your audience can refer back to, if necessary. If you have time on your hands, you can even set up your own acronym expander using autocorrect.
  1. Underline acronyms and abbreviations in the text so people can identify them. This can help people to identify which words are acronyms or abbreviations and which aren't, as the distinction isn't always clear. This can be particularly helpful to people who have dyslexia and struggle to read some words.

Lucy Bishop

About the Author:

Senior editor Lucy has over 10 years' experience writing, editing and commissioning content. She regularly contributes to the Mind Tools blog, heads up Mind Tools' video learning series, hosts our Neurodiversity Panel, and particularly enjoys exploring and experimenting with new video formats. When she's not producing fantastic new learning content, she can be found enjoying nature with her two kids and delving into the latest book on her very long reading list!

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