Do acronyms belong in a plain language world?

Corinna Lines | June 13, 2023

Bowl of soup with a spoon holding noodles shaped as A, B, C

Clear, or alphabet soup? Image by Sigmund / Unsplash licence


Recently I asked a friend, ‘Do you have a VGA or HDMI adapter for a PC with USB-C?’

Clear, or alphabet soup?

Well, she understood what I was asking — so for her it was clear. But that is the question for writers: how clear are our acronyms? Now that New Zealand’s Plain Language Act 2022 is in force for the public sector, what do we need to do differently?

Read the Plain Language Act’s guidance on the Public Service Commission website

See the Plain Language Act on the government’s legislation website

What exactly is an acronym anyway?

In this blog post, ‘acronym’ includes both acronyms and initialisms. The two are closely related. An acronym is a group of initial letters pronounced as a word (such as ANZAC or DOC). Sometimes they lose their capitals and become used as an actual word: ‘scuba’, ‘laser’, or ‘Anzac biscuits’.

An initialism is similar, except the group of letters can’t be pronounced as a word (such as SPCA or UNHCR).

Cup of coffee with Anzac biscuit on a plate.

Don’t be distracted by the thought of Anzac biscuits. Image by Ryutaro Tsukata / Pexels licence

Can I use acronyms if I’m writing in plain language?

Yes, acronyms and initialisms have a place in plain language. They can reduce the amount of terminology in your writing. But the problem is knowing who will understand them — and if you really need them. For example, ‘COB’ may seem clear, but does the reader know when business closes for the day? It’s clearer (and shorter) to say ‘by 5pm’ than ‘by COB’.

We often use acronyms for long names of organisations or departments. For example, if you’re writing about Palmerston North City Council, in an internal document you might well shorten this to ‘PNCC’. But for external audiences, you could easily call it ‘the Council’ and avoid using an acronym.

Above all, make sure you write the name in full the first time you use it — then add the acronym in brackets. This works for reports and standalone documents. But it’s not so easy on websites, as readers may land on any webpage from a search. This means you really need to define acronyms at the start of every webpage. So think about whether you can use a word (like ‘Council’) instead of an acronym.

And of course some acronyms are more familiar than their full version — like UFO, GST, and CPR. In those cases, you usually don’t need to explain them. But still think of your readers. If they live in other countries, they may not use the same acronyms.

The answer is to focus on your reader

This reader focus is the key to making up your mind about things like acronyms. Think about how you feel when you read something with an acronym you don’t understand. It may make you feel excluded from the content. It may just irritate you. Or it may make you stop reading, as you don’t feel it’s written for you. Now put yourself in your reader’s shoes. You can’t know all the people your work may reach, but you should be able to identify your primary readers. That’s who you are writing for.

New Zealand’s Public Service Commission has a page summarising its ‘Spirit of Service’. This helps to remind us that in our work roles we write as a service to others. The core characteristics of public service are:

Read about the Spirit of Service on the Public Service Commission’s website

Writing in a plain language world

The Plain Language Act requires public service agencies and Crown entities in New Zealand to write public-facing information in a clear and accessible way. We all have to read communication from these agencies and entities. Even if you’re a public sector writer yourself, you’ll also encounter writing from other agencies. In a democracy, we all have the right to understand official information that applies to us. If we don’t understand it, we can’t comply with it or participate effectively in the democracy we live in.

So you can use acronyms — as long as you explain them, so your readers understand them.

Random pile of Scrabble tiles

Unjumble the letters so your readers understand. Image by Pixabay / Pixabay licence

More help with plain language (and acronyms)

This is our third blog post on the Plain Language Act. Here are the first two:
It’s time to unwrap plain language for everyone
Does the Plain Language Act 2022 affect how you use reo Maōri?

And we offer workshops and online learning — check out what’s on offer:
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