Sunday, March 20, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 1: Preview Your Abbreviations!

Whenever using abbreviations, think of whether the intended readers will understand your shortcut. But how should you know what they know? Here's a test to help you reflect on the answer to this question. How many of the abbreviations in the list below can you identify?

  1. USA
  2. FBI
  3. MoMA
  4. WTP

I would bet my house that 90% of earthlings over 18 who can read English would correctly identify the answer to number 1 as the United States of America.

I would lower the stakes by betting only my best suit, and lower the percentage and narrow the population to only 50% of US English-reading citizens over 18 who could identify number 2 as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I feel confident that more than 50% of this group recognize FBI, but fewer would correctly term the spelled-out version. Therefore, I would introduce the term as follows: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), if I were writing to a non-US government  audience, but I would not spell out the agency if I were writing for the popular US press.

I would further cut the stakes to merely my favorite book, and lower the percentage population to no more than 20% of English-reading New Yorkers over 18 who could identify number 3 as the Museum of Modern Art—even though MoMA is in New York City. My experience tells me that more out-of-towners than locals go to this museum. Thus, I would spell out MoMA anywhere outside the fine arts world.

Finally, I would hike the stakes to my car but reduce the numbers to 33% of employees of New York City Department of Environmental Protection who could identify the fourth abbreviation as wastewater treatment plant. Why that low when the Department of Environment Protection is responsible for operating wastewater treatment plans? Because  the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment is only one of nine operating divisions in a bureaucracy of 6,000 specialized employees. So I would spell out WTP for virtually anyone but American environmental engineers.

Of course, I could be wrong about my estimates, but you get my point. Think about who gets the message before you abbreviate.