A Problem with Abbreviations and Acronyms

post by billswift · 2011-08-12T20:41:41.585Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 28 comments

I posted this in the comments at Eric Raymond's blog:

I am really tired of three letter acronyms. There are too few alternatives, so even though there may not be much confusion in context, the first thing that springs to mind is not likely to be correct, which brings you to a screeching halt while you think about it – like a confusing mis-spelling of a word.

For example, I hate rms, meaning Stallman, because every time I see it I first think root-mean-square which I was familiar with long before I ever used a computer. And I used to live in Prince George’s county Maryland, so everything starting with PG brings up the wrong initial response.

Then I realized some here may find it useful.

Extensive use of abbreviations and acronyms was primarily a convenience for writers, when writing was done by hand and then by typewriter, there is less justification for it now when most writing is done by computer.  And as my comment points out it is usually a negative for readers. It does benefit readers when you can convert a long phrase into a readable word, SCUBA and LASER spring to mind, but that doesn't occur often.

28 comments

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comment by Steven_Bukal · 2011-08-12T22:25:53.425Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Extensive use of abbreviations and acronyms was primarily a convenience for writers, when writing was done by hand and then by typewriter, there is less justification for it now when most writing is done by computer.

I don't agree. My impression is that the popularity of abbreviations and acronyms is being driven by the rise in popularity of text messaging, which is usually done from phones with tiny, unusable keyboards; instant messaging, which is done in real time; and social networking site based communication, which often has hard limits on message length (e.g. Twitter).

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2013-11-29T23:42:42.020Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

OTOH, in “formal” contexts (say, encyclopaedias or textbooks) ISTM that abbreviations used to be more common than they are now.

comment by r_claypool · 2011-08-12T21:39:53.494Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

They can be a small, unnecessary barrier for newcomers to LW, LessWrong.

comment by Armok_GoB · 2011-08-12T21:42:46.497Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I disagree. I seem to love acronyms, mainly aesthetically for no reason at all other than a probably rare quirk of my brain. So upvoted for reminding me others might not feel the same way.

comment by JanetK · 2011-08-14T10:11:27.931Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why not adopt the convention used in many types of writing? The first time the term is used in a text, it is written in full and its abbreviation or acronym is put after it in brackets. After that the short form is used.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-08-12T21:14:51.859Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Extensive use of abbreviations and acronyms was primarily a convenience for writers, when writing was done by hand and then by typewriter, there is less justification for it now when most writing is done by computer.

This is a claim I don't understand. Most people with computers can't type much faster than they can write.

Incidentally, there are much worse examples than RMS. For example, FLT is Fermat's Last Theorem, Fermat's Little Theorem, and Faster Than Light Travel. Note that the first two of these are in the same area of study and only have a one word difference.

All of that said, I don't think this is really a big deal. Humans do context recognition really well. A lot of language is much more ambiguous than it would seem at first glance. It is very rare that acronyms create actual confusion.

Replies from: Mitchell_Porter, Dreaded_Anomaly, Swimmer963
comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2011-08-13T08:24:06.201Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

FLT is Fermat's Last Theorem [...] and Faster Than Light Travel.

I have discovered a truly remarkable propulsion system, which this reference frame is too small to contain.

comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2011-08-12T22:57:43.038Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Faster Than Light is FTL, not FLT. Of course, that can also be For The Loss, colloquially.

In general, I agree with you about context recognition. LEO can be Low Earth Orbit or Law Enforcement Officer, but we rarely find ourselves in a situation that seriously confuses the two.

Replies from: JoshuaZ, gershom
comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-08-13T14:31:19.928Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For what it is worth, Wikipedia lists Faster Than Light Travel or variations thereof under both FTLand FLT.

Replies from: Dreaded_Anomaly
comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2011-08-13T20:01:50.910Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It does, but I notice that the FLT acronym is not found anywhere on the actual faster than light page.

comment by gershom · 2011-08-13T04:12:55.268Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe FLT, Faster than Light Travel, is the more common of the two. Never actually seen FTL in that context.

Replies from: Dreaded_Anomaly
comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2011-08-13T04:58:12.949Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've only ever seen FTL, at least in science fiction (books, TV, etc.).

Replies from: Endovior, Vladimir_Nesov
comment by Endovior · 2011-08-13T06:08:21.487Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I also haven't ever seen FLT anywhere; whenever people are discussing speeds in excess of c, it's always FTL. What books are you reading, that use that apparently nonstandard abbreviation?

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-08-13T14:31:49.841Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

FLT stands for "faster-than-light travel" specifically, while FTL is used in other sentences involving "faster-than-light", like FTL drive, or even FTL travel.

Replies from: Dreaded_Anomaly
comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2011-08-13T19:55:44.255Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've really never (until this thread, at least) seen FLT used instead of FTL travel. Usually, the context is clear enough that the "travel" part can be omitted anyway.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2011-08-13T14:55:26.864Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Faster Than Light Travel.

The only acronym I've ever seen for this is FTL (Faster Than Light)...granted that was in the context of sci-fi not technical discussion, and there are probably other phrases with FTL as an abbreviation.

comment by orthonormal · 2011-08-15T17:52:32.423Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

IAWYC, but ISTM that it's not that much easier to type out the whole phrase when using computers, unless you've got a lot of custom macros going. And in the LCPW, context should be enough for acronyms, though naturally YMMV.

Essentially, YSITTBIDWTCIYSTEIWEWITTAW.

ETA: OK, that really doesn't work here, but I couldn't resist.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2013-11-29T23:39:42.946Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

:-)

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2011-08-13T21:35:41.663Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This post FTW. Runs away

comment by [deleted] · 2011-08-13T12:40:43.836Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I posted this in the comments at ESR's blog:

Fixed that for you.

there is less justification for it now when most writing is done by computer.

Ah, but most reading is still done by humans, and humans are good at recognizing small identifiers and mapping them to large concepts. That's what words are, and acronyms are really halfway-words (with a few, like laser, being promoted to real words mostly by virtue of their pronounceability and resemblance to other words).

Unfamiliar acronyms are difficult to parse, just like unfamiliar words. But familiar acronyms enhance readability. This is especially true when dealing with things that have clunky True Names, like many organizations (everyone refers to International Business Machines and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by their acronyms), or in technical fields where many complicated concepts have to be referred to in quick succession.

In my line of work, I'm not averse to typing out "member function template of a class or class template" when necessary, because sometimes that level of specificity is necessary and I don't have a better name (nobody attempts to make it into an acronym). But I frequently refer to the STL (Standard Template Library), CRT (C Run-Time [Library]), RVO (Return Value Optimization), NRVO (Named Return Value Optimization), ADL (Argument-Dependent Lookup), RAII (Resource Acquisition Is Initialization), ODR (One Definition Rule), and the big dog, SFINAE (Substitution Failure Is Not An Error; always hilariously pronounced, sometimes "sss fee nay"). I could write those things out in full (and I do when introducing people to the hall of mysteries), but it would actually make things much harder to read. My intended audience knows what these things are, and isn't going to confuse them with St. Louis, the Chinese Remainder Theorem, etc.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-08-13T02:01:32.555Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Easy measure: make all acronyms at least four letters long. I pick the number four because three-letter acronyms usually have many associated Wikipedia articles, while four-letter acronyms usually have at most one.

Amusingly, the obvious (in my mind) abbreviation for "four-letter acronym" conflicts with a certain free lossless audio codec.

Replies from: fubarobfusco
comment by fubarobfusco · 2011-08-13T20:47:10.261Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The usual abbreviation for "four-letter abbreviation" is "ETLA".

Replies from: bbleeker
comment by bbleeker · 2011-08-15T13:32:02.699Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought that was XTLA.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-08-14T20:23:15.072Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am really tired of three letter acronyms. There are too few alternatives,

That's why there are ETLAs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extended_three_letter_acronym

comment by fubarobfusco · 2011-08-13T08:29:20.645Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We had one of these confusions at the Mountain View meetup this week. NLP: Natural Language Processing or Neuro-Linguistic Programming?

Nonetheless, humans are overall pretty good at dealing with linguistic ambiguities — enough so that we usually find them more groan-inducing (as puns) than actually confusing.

comment by billswift · 2011-08-13T19:21:10.079Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is pretty interesting that everyone addressed my secondary points while ignoring the more important:

There are too few alternatives, so even though there may not be much confusion in context, the first thing that springs to mind is not likely to be correct, which brings you to a screeching halt while you think about it – like a confusing mis-spelling of a word.

As I wrote, the problem isn't confusion in context; it is that most short acronyms will interfere with your reception of the information while you parse it - unless you are deeply into the narrow context being discussed. Also there will be less difficulty if there are no similar acronyms from fields you are more familiar with.

And there is no evidence that texting has anything to do with it, it seems to be more driven by the "baffle them with bullshit" mode of bureaucracy, since it has been mostly spreading outwards from gov't since the 1970s.

Replies from: KPier
comment by KPier · 2011-08-13T20:16:52.487Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

since it has been mostly spreading outwards from gov't since the 1970s

Any evidence for this?