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Q&A Acronyms in Technical Writing

posted over 5 years ago by Canina‭  ·  last activity almost 3 years ago by System‭

Answer
#4: Attribution notice removed by user avatar System‭ · 2019-12-11T18:55:50Z (almost 3 years ago)
Source: https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/29026
License name: CC BY-SA 3.0
License URL: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
#3: Initial revision by (deleted user) · 2019-12-08T06:40:54Z (almost 3 years ago)
I don't think there is any one rule that fits every case here. The golden rule, if anything, would be to _not overburden the reader, but keep in mind what they can be expected to know up front_. Not overburdening the reader includes not giving irrelevant facts just because you can; if the reader simply _doesn't need to know_ what the expansion of the abbreviation is in order to fully understand the text, then consider whether you really need to spell it out in the first place. Maybe a footnote would be sufficient, and you don't need to include it in the prose?

You do say "technical" writing, so I'm going to go with some technical terms. Would you rather use...

- _radar_ which is accepted as a word these days, while originally it was an abbreviation for either _radio detection and ranging_ or _radio direction and ranging_.
- _PC_ or _personal computer_?
- _SMS_ or _short message service_? This one becomes more complicated because when most people use the term "SMS", they aren't really referring to the infrastructure but rather to the text that they are sending to a recipient cell phone.
- _IPv6_, which is a widely accepted term, or _Internet Protocol version 6_?
- _LCD_ or _liquid crystal display_?
- _TV_ or _television receiver_?
- _car_ or _automobile_? (Particularly in languages where the word for _car_ more obviously derives from the word for _automobile_, such as in Swedish where _car_ is _bil_ and _automobile_ is _automo **bil** _.)

I think you see where I'm going with this. _At some point, you simply have to assume that the reader is familiar with some of the context in which your work exists._ Otherwise, we wouldn't even have anything that qualifies as a meaningful language.

For your example of _NATO_ the _North Atlantic Treaty Organization_, also keep in mind the intended audience. If you are writing in a context where precision is critical, then obviously you should be using the full, _official_ name. If your audience can be expected to know what NATO is, then you might consider just using the abbreviation, which is relatively widely understood in the western world. If your target audience can be expected to not have a clue what NATO is, then the chances that they will be able to understand what the _North Atlantic Treaty Organization_ is probably aren't much better, so you will need to offer a short introduction _anyway_, at which point you can give the variant they are more likely to be familiar with first, and the other afterwards. For example,

> NATO, the _North Atlantic Treaty Organization_ or in French _Organisation du Traité de l'Atlantique Nord_, is a military alliance originally founded in 1949. As of 2017, it consists of 29 member countries.

With the introduction out of the way, you should be able to relatively safely refer to them by merely the abbreviation, _NATO_, later in the text.

If you are uncertain, I tend to find that a good rule of thumb is to use whatever Wikipedia uses for the main article on a subject. You'd probably rather use _car_ than _automobile_, and sure enough, if you plug [automobile](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automobile) into Wikipedia, you end up at the page named [car](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Car).

#2: Attribution notice added by user avatar System‭ · 2019-12-08T06:40:54Z (almost 3 years ago)
Source: https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/29026
License name: CC BY-SA 3.0
License URL: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
#1: Imported from external source by user avatar System‭ · 2017-06-30T20:57:19Z (over 5 years ago)
Original score: 5