April 24th, 2017 .

Acronym Acrimony: Why I hate alphabet soup

Pat Morden


Recently I noticed the following headline in an online news story:

“PEI students to become eligible for EI while attending PSE.”

Now, it took me a minute, but I figured out what it meant.

Then I got to thinking – the P in this headline stands for Prince and post, the E for Edward, employment and education, and the I for Island and insurance.

Imagine if you weren’t familiar with even one of these acronyms. Say you had just arrived in Canada on a student visa. How confusing would that be?

Acronyms are handy little things. They help us communicate quickly and effectively. They save space and time. They enable a precision that might otherwise be difficult to achieve. But they can also confuse and even alienate.

Every sector has its own acronyms that become a kind of secret handshake for those in the know. Healthcare is legendary in this regard. One of my favourites is “ALC,” which stands for “alternate level of care.” Not only is it a tricky acronym to guess the meaning of, it’s also a euphemism. ALC means you shouldn’t still be lolling around in the hospital, because there’s somewhere cheaper you could be shipped out to.

In body copy the rule is clear: spell out the term in full for the first reference, add the acronym in parentheses, and then subsequently use the acronym. (Oddly, people often include the acronym in parentheses, even if there is no second reference.)

But the most important rule is to communicate clearly. If you’ve gone on for pages using several acronyms, it may be well to refresh your readers’ memory. Although it’s acceptable to use acronyms in headlines, it’s worth thinking about alternatives that would be more easily understood. Avoid creating alphabet soup and making your readers feel out of the loop in the process.

How would I write the headline that stopped me in my tracks? Here are two alternatives:

“PEI students may receive benefits while at university or college.”

“Islanders may be eligible for EI while studying at university or college.”

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