How to Handle Acronyms in Business Communications

It was one of those cosmic quirks. I was flipping through channels and stumbled across a radio program airing an interview with the Grammar Girl.

I was writing webcopy for a client, so it seemed appropriate to listen to a discussion of grammar and usage.

One caller asked a series of questions about acronyms and their use in business reports and documents. Since I was on a deadline, I didn’t call in with a response, but the guidelines below answer the basic questions.

Keep in mind, these are practical, B2B writing guidelines, not the sticky rules you’re expected to follow in academia or journalism.

Let's tackle the questions (Q) and answers (A) one by one:

Q: Do you spell out the name or phrase the acronym represents?

A: Yes, spell out the full name or phrase the first time you use it and place the acronym in parentheses. An alternate approach is to use the acronym and place the explanation in parentheses. Here’s how you do it:
CH Puissegur & Associates (CHP) helps small business owners implement sales, marketing and business strategies to increase revenues, cut costs and improve performance.

Create do-it-yourself (DIY) success stories to demonstrate results you’ve helped customers achieve.

To activate a rift in the TSC (time-space continuum), press the flashing red button.
Q: How often do you remind the reader what the acronym means?

A: In a short report or document (under five pages, for instance), cite the full name/phrase and acronym the first time you use it. After that, use the acronym.

In a longer report or document (more than five pages), periodically remind the reader what the acronym stands for. You could restate the name/phrase and acronym every time you start a new section, or inject a reminder once every five pages or so to help the reader stay on track.

Q: How should acronyms be treated? Do you use periods?

A: Most acronyms are capitalized. There are also wacky rules governing which acronyms require periods and which ones don’t. In the real world, communications need to be fast, practical and efficient. Skip the periods, as I’ve done in the examples above. Periods clutter the page, and slow down you and the reader.

Bottom Line

In internal and informal reports, where every reader knows IBM stands for International Business Machines (and not intercontinental ballistic missiles), simply use the acronym. If there is any chance the acronym could be confusing, follow the guidelines above.

In the English language, there truly are exceptions to every rule, including the use, treatment and frequency of acronyms. We’ll deal with those issues in another post. For now, follow these basic rules, and you'll handle most acronym issues like a pro.

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