How to handle acronyms and intialisms

Reading time: About 3 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a blog post about how to handle acronyms and initialisms…

One of my pet peeves is seeing a piece of text larded with acronyms (intials that spell a pronounceable word) and initialisms (initials that don’t spell a word). Do you know what I’m talking about? Here’s an example, taken from the European Journal of Neurology:

We investigated whether serum vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) levels in acute‐stage ischaemic stroke patients with small vessel disease (SVD) or large vessel disease (LVD) are correlated with long‐term prognoses, based on the difference in NIH Stroke Scale (NIHSS) scores between acute and chronic stages. From March 2007 to May 2008, we evaluated patients who experienced an ischaemic stroke for the first time, defined as SVD (n=89) or LVD (n=91) using the TOAST classification. Serum samples were taken immediately after admission (within 24 h of stroke onset) to evaluate VEGF levels. 

All those VEGFs and SVDs and LVDs make the text difficult and intimidating to read.

Former research scientist and current editor Claire Bacon has some useful guidelines for scientists in her post headlined, The Dos and Don’ts of Using Abbreviations.

Although she doesn’t use the terms acronyms and initialisms, here’s how she puts it:

Less is more when it comes to abbreviations. Why? Think of your poor reader. Abbreviations disrupt the reading process – each time your reader comes across an abbreviation, they have to remember (or even worse, look up) what the abbreviation means.

Her advice makes points I have long argued, especially relating to academic writing. Use initialisms and acronyms only when they aid instant understanding. Otherwise, you’re far smarter to use the full term.