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Alphabet soup

Barbara McClintock
(Language Update, Volume 9, Number 2, 2012, page 20)

It is common knowledge that public servants and military personnel overuse abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms (AAIs). Acronyms and initialisms are both types of abbreviations. The main difference between them is that acronyms are pronounced as words, whereas in initialisms letters are pronounced separately.

The addiction to AAIs has spread as a result of their importance in electronic communications, where space is at a premium. Texting is rife with AAIs and much has been written on the subject. Initialisms such as LOL (laughing out loud) and OMG (oh my God) and symbols such as ♥ are entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. When used as text and tweet shortcuts, they may actually save you from a trip to the hospital for carpal tunnel surgery! AAIs that may be misunderstood should be spelled out on the first reference to clarify the meaning for readers. As an added benefit, this helps avoid translation mistakes.

Recently, I have noticed that many people are unaware of when to use articles with abbreviations. Articles are not a problem with acronyms, which are pronounceable as words, unless there is some confusion about whether or not they should be pronounced as a word. This confusion sometimes occurs with abbreviations of French expressions, such as Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel. CEGEP is pronounced as a word so it is an acronym. However, according to usage, CEGEP is considered an abbreviation for a college in English, e.g. John Abbott College. It is thus an exception to the pronunciation rule.

To confirm my theory about the use of articles with abbreviations, I conducted an informal poll. One of my colleagues advised me to check organization websites as a definitive source of reference. That can work, but it sometimes leads to more confusion. Although the people running the largest federal government union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), undoubtedly have more important things to think about these days, there are inconsistencies in how PSAC is written on its website. In the About the Public Service Alliance of Canada section, the description switches from the PSAC to PSAC and contains some awkward wording to boot:

The PSAC is working to achieve a compassionate and inclusive society free of sexism, racism, homophobia and all other forms of discrimination… PSAC is committed [to] defending access to quality public services, and to social justice through emergency relief funding [of] antipoverty and development work both in Canada and around the world.

PSAC is an acronym because most people pronounce it as a word. Acronyms are treated as proper nouns so they do not need an article. Thus, it would be better to write: PSAC is working…. If the writer or translator is unsure, he or she (please note that I did not say they) should at least decide to use one form or the other and then be consistent.

In any case, guidelines for abbreviations are simple. Just look at what the abbreviation means and, when there is a noun that indicates the entity, use an article (a, an or the). This also applies to French names, such as the Autorité des marchés financiers. The AMF is Quebec’s financial industry regulatory authority.

Guidelines for abbreviations

Acronyms

Public Service Alliance of Canada PSAC
Technology, Entertainment and Design TED

Initialisms

The International Monetary Fund The IMF
The Autorité des marchés financiers The AMF

Initialisms, which have become all the rage with Web 2.0, are even used as verbs, although not in formal writing. There is currently some debate about how to write the verb forms of initialisms such as cc for carbon copy, which has been given a new life with email. What is the answer to this bad pun: CC-ing is believing? Lolled or lol’d?

Informal

I cc’ed (or cc’d) him yesterday.

Formal

I sent him a true copy (or copy) yesterday.

Since carbon paper has gone the way of the dinosaur, true copy has become more popular in legal writing.

NOTES

Amy Lee, “LOL, OMG, ♥ Added To The Oxford English Dictionary,” The Huffington Post, May 25, 2011.

About the Public Service Alliance of Canada,” November 21, 2011.

Articles with abbreviations,” Language and Learning Online, Monash University.