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What's in a name: Understanding and using government acronyms

SEC. FEC. FERC. FCC. CDC.

The “alphabet soup” of government acronyms is a well-documented frustration — both among federal employees and the public we serve. Abbreviations can be confusing. They mystify meaning. They read like riddles.

And they’re one of things we get asked about the most.

We have an acronyms section in our Content Guide, a resource we heartily recommend. Acronyms and abbreviations also have a ton of associated history and nuance, which we’re shedding light on here, hopefully to encourage other authors and agencies to think carefully about how they use them in digital tools.

First things first: What’s an acronym, and what’s an abbreviation? Like every good grammar question, it depends on who you ask. We consider acronyms a subset of abbreviations, a stance also held by the Council of Science Editors. Here’s what that means:

Abbreviations are any shortened or contracted word or phrase. For example, writing St. instead of Street, or Rx for prescription, or D.C. for District of Columbia. Acronyms are a type of abbreviation. They shorten phrases in a specific way — using parts of the initial word or phrase (usually letters) to form an abbreviation.

If you spend time online or on a cell phone, you probably encounter acronyms regularly. For example, LOL or ASAP or DIY. An acronym can be used so prevalently that people forget what the long form means or that it ever existed. For example, did you know laser stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation?

In full disclosure, there is — in the most technical sense — a difference between acronyms (abbreviations pronounced as words, like NASA) and initialisms (abbreviations pronounced as letters, like FBI). To keep things simple, our content guide refers to both as acronyms. The readability issues that acronyms and initialisms create tend to be similar, and “acronym” is the more common term. In sum, while you may see other groups talk about “abbreviations,” “acronyms” and “initialisms,” we’ve decided to use only two groupings — “abbreviations” and “acronyms.” We consider “acronyms” a child of the larger, “abbreviations” group.

One place we encounter an abundance of acronyms is in government writing, particularly agency names.

There’s the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and so on. Most agencies have additional acronyms within their organization, for divisions, branches, or offices. This writer once worked on the ETB, AFSPD, ATF — the Education and Training Branch, Asset Forfeiture and Seized Property Division at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

It was faster to type ETB, AFSPD, ATF than the full, 19-word name. And my colleagues knew what it stood for. But to an outsider, that string of letters looks completely devoid of meaning.

So how can we, as government content creators, increase transparency and understanding?

A good first step is to use acronyms sparingly. Just because you can abbreviate something doesn’t mean you should. If you decide an acronym is necessary, don’t assume readers know what it means. The U.S. government has hundreds of government organizations; we can’t expect the public to know about them all. Spell out the acronym on first reference, and include the abbreviation in parentheses after it. For example, General Services Administration (GSA). Second and subsequent references can use only the abbreviated form. But if it is more clear, feel free to use a shortened phrase on second reference, rather than an acronym. For example, Labor, instead of Department of Labor.

If in doubt, give the reader more clarity, not less. If they can understand your materials, readers will be happier, and you’ll field fewer calls and emails for help.

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