On acronyms in academic writing

I am not a huge fan of acronyms. I feel I should start with this disclaimer. I know that they serve a purpose in academic writing, and I do use them. But with caution, and only when needed. I think acronyms are, essentially, un-reader-friendly, and should be used judiciously to create and communicate meaning.

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Let’s start with what is useful about acronyms. Firstly, they can save you space and typing time. If you have a long term you need to use, such as “Southern African Development Community”, and you’ll be writing this several times in your paper or thesis, you can shorten it to SADC. This will reduce your overall word count, and also type 4 letters every time you use it, instead of 4 longer words. 

There are accepted acronyms in every field that you and your colleagues and peers will know and use. Think of CHAT (Cultural Historical Activity Theory) in Education, or RAM (Random Access Memory) in Computer Science, or WRT (with respect to) in Mathematics. To use these accepted, known acronyms is to signal your membership of your academic community of knowledge-making and knowers

However, as a writer I think it is useful to put myself in the position of my readers, and read the text, with the acronyms, as they might. Read this:

SG and SD are realised in terms of their relative strength or weakness, and brought together these two organising principles create semantic codes that reveal combinations of stronger and weaker SG and SD together. These codes shift and move over time as SG and SD strengthen and weaken in relation to one another. These movements form what LCT terms a ‘semantic wave’, which can be used to map a teaching and learning event, such as a lecture, part of a lecture or a whole series of lectures (see figure 1). Inverse movements of SG and SD – where SG is stronger at the same time as SD is weaker for example – are potentially important for cumulative knowledge building, as we shall see in the following section. It should be noted, here, though, that SG and SD do not necessarily strengthen and weaken inversely (Maton, 2013), although it is these kinds of waves, for the purpose of illustration and brevity, that will be focused on in this paper.

How do you encounter this text as a reader? You can assume, coming from the middle of a paper, that SG and SD have been defined earlier in the paper. Do you find these easy to make sense of?

Confession, this is a draft of a paper I wrote a couple of years ago. This is how I wrote it. But, when I got the reviews back, the reviewers both pointed out that the use of all of these acronyms had an alienating effect on the reader, especially as these refer to theory, which can already be difficult for readers new to it. I therefore rewrote this paragraph (and subsequent similar paragraphs):

Semantic gravity and semantic density are realised in terms of their relative strength or weakness, and brought together these two organising principles create semantic codes that reveal combinations of stronger and weaker semantic gravity and semantic density together. These codes shift and move over time as semantic gravity and semantic density strengthen and weaken in relation to one another. These movements form what LCT terms a ‘semantic wave’, which can be used to map a teaching and learning event, such as a lecture, part of a lecture or a whole series of lectures (see figure 1). Inverse movements of semantic gravity and semantic density – where SG is stronger at the same time as SD is weaker for example – are potentially important for cumulative knowledge building, as we shall see in the following section. It should be noted, here, though, that semantic gravity and semantic density do not necessarily strengthen and weaken inversely (Maton, 2013), although it is these kinds of waves, for the purpose of illustration and brevity, that will be focused on in this paper.

How does it read now? A little easier to follow? I think so. The thing that concerns me about acronyms, even the accepted ones, is that readers don’t always read out the term in full in their heads. Sometimes, they don’t read ‘SADAC’ or ‘semantic gravity’. Sometimes they read ‘ESS-AYE-DEE-CEE’ or ‘ESS-GEE’. And the more they do the latter, the less readerly the text becomes. Your reader can end up feeling alienated from the meanings you are making, and communicating to them. Readers who have to work too hard to make sense of your text, and remember what all the acronyms stand for, are likely not going to enjoy the reading experience.

I have become, through the process of writing and revising this, and a couple of other papers, more aware of the ‘acronymising’ I do in my writing. I have also become more aware of it in my students’ texts, as I read and offer them feedback. And, my observations and writing practice have led me to this advice:

  1. Try to stick only to the accepted, known acronyms, as far as possible in your text. Try not to create acronyms where there don’t need to be any (like SA instead of South Africa, or HE instead of higher education). 
  2. Put yourself in your reader’s head, and read your text aloud. Do the acronyms work, or does it sound odd, or confusing after a while to have as many as you have included? 
  3. Always define the term you are acronymising first – this is basic, but often something writers forget to do, especially when they know their field well. 
  4. I try to create text-by-text guidelines for myself – if I have a long text, like a thesis, I will use the acronyms carefully, and probably redefine them chapter by chapter to remind my reader what they mean. If I have a shorter text, like a paper, I won’t need to do this. I also try not to include too many acronyms, so I choose the ones that will be most useful and necessary in terms of saving words and typing time, and signalling my knowledge of the field 

I hope this advice helps you to consider your use of acronyms, and focus less on making your job as a writer easier, and a little more on making your text reader-friendly, and your meanings accessible and clear.

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