by Lisbeth Eng
Love them or hate them, acronyms are nearly as ubiquitous as death and taxes, to borrow from Ben Franklin’s old saw. There are even acronyms about death and taxes: DOA (dead on arrival) and IRS (Internal Revenue Service) to name two. Acronyms are so common that we sometimes forget what the letters actually stand for. Until I researched this subject, I didn’t know that “laser” stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Nor did I know that the longest American acronym is ADCOMSUBORDCOMPHIBSPAC, a United States Navy term that stands for Administrative Command, Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet Subordinate Command.
One controversy about acronyms is how to indicate plurals. For example, does one write FAQs or FAQ’s as the plural of Frequently Asked Question? Though there are differing opinions among grammarians, IMHO (I trust you can identify that acronym) it is preferable to omit the apostrophe. Thus, multiple Chief Executive Officers would be referred to as CEOs and a plethora of digital versatile discs as DVDs. However, if you insist on including the apostrophe, please be consistent.
Now, one mustn’t get carried away and end up with a case of the dreaded RAS syndrome or "Redundant Acronym Syndrome Syndrome.” Examples include:
IRA account (Individual Retirement Account Account)
ATM machine (Automated Teller Machine Machine)
PIN number (Personal Identification Number Number)
SALT talks (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Talks)
When you say that Saudi Arabia is an OPEC country, you are actually saying that it is an Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries country. You can avoid this by simply saying it is a member of OPEC.
Contrived acronyms have been invented to either exploit or avoid taboo words. The clothing company French Connection sold t-shirts emblazoned with FCUK (allegedly denoting the nonsensical “French Connection United Kingdom”) to take advantage of the provocative similarity to a naughty word for copulation. Conversely, some organizations have taken the high road – or at least the less embarrassing one – and contorted their acronyms to avoid such vulgarity. The internationally recognized qualification for Computer Literacy and Internet Technology is known as CLaIT, rather than CLIT, for reasons you may be able to surmise. Likewise, the political group formerly known as the Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance Party was purportedly renamed the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance when they realized the original initials spelled CCRAP.
With the proliferation of texting and tweeting, acronyms and other abbreviations are encroaching further and further into our language. However, one should take care to avoid overuse in formal writing, and feel confident enough that the reader is familiar with the acronym. You are probably safe to use LOL, OMG or BTW in a text message or tweet, as the users of those media are likely hip enough to recognize them. Even the decidedly un-hip Giddy Grammarian would recognize those.♥
Lisbeth Eng works as a Compliance Officer in the financial industry by day and writes historical romance by night. She holds a bachelor's degree in English, and speaks a smattering of German, Italian and French. Please visit her at www.lisbetheng.com.