Why do acronyms bug me? And what has that got to do with Zip files?

I have a love-hate relationship with acronyms. Much of my working day is spent using them.

I work in an industry that has created acronyms that have become part of the common language – PC for instance.

** A quick aside, it’s worth me clarifying a couple of things before someone else does. Technically speaking PC isn’t an acronym it’s an initialism, the difference is in how you say them – NATO is an acronym because it’s said as a word, PC is an initialism because it’s said “P”, “C”. There’s also abbreviations, and sometimes it’s not easy to work out the difference. I’m going to use the term acronym as shorthand for all of these in this post. Also I’m not going to put a full-stop between the letters of any of the acronyms, or initialisms, because honestly, life is too short and there doesn’t appear to be any clear consensus on the correct punctuation. Back to the main topic of post.

Acronyms are everywhere.

Some words that we use we no longer even recognize as acronyms – Radar is probably the best known if these.

Most organisations have an internal language littered with them – in my organisation a NOD is a Notice of Decision.

Yet, despite their prevalence, I’m not a fan. The truth is, they bug me.

The other day I asked this question on twitter:

I’ll let you read the comments, which were all helpful. No one chimed in to say that they were a fan, and there were several reasons why people thought that we used them. I was hoping that if I could find a fan they might be able to help me understand a little of why I feel this sense of dread every time I come across a piece of TLA (Three Letter Acronym) laden writing.

While I was pondering this, an analogy occurred to me which has really helped me understand the mechanics behind my frustration. It’s a bit technical, but I think most people will relate to it.

Acronyms are the Zip files of writing

Zip files aren’t as widely used as they used to be, but they are still used, it’s just that there use is a bit more hidden these days.

Imagine this. You are sat at one of your many screens and for once you haven’t been distracted by WhatsApp or by gazing blankly at a group of people who would rather be anywhere than on another Zoom call. You are, however, distracted by a notification informing you of a new email. The notification takes you to an email from a friend inviting you to a party (remember those). You look up and down the email a couple of times but can’t find any details. At this point you realise that your friend has attached a file to the invite. You select the file and it opens up in another window/app showing that this is a Zip file containing a PDF of the clipart heavy invitation.

As someone to whom the announcement of a party is new information you had to go through three steps to get to the information you needed. If you had already known the details of the party you would have only needed to go through one of those steps. It would have been far more efficient, for you the reader, if the author had put the information in the text of the email, but if they had done this you wouldn’t have enjoyed seeing their clipart skills.

The other day an insurance company sent me a renewal notice for my car insurance. The details were in a Zip file, but this file required a few more steps because it was a password protected Zip file. The text of the email told me how to unlock the file using my data of birth. The problem was, these instructions were hidden is several hundred other words and it took me a while to find the answer I was looking for.

Acronyms do the same thing, they compress together units of information that in many cases we need to uncompress to understand. That process of uncompressing takes extra time, extra effort, additional steps and interrupts the flow of reading. Sometimes it doesn’t have that impact because we know what the compressed item contains, but there are far more times when our flow of reading is interrupted by our need to uncompress what we are reading.

Acronyms still bug me, but I think I now understand a bit better why – TTFN 😉

Header Image: Today’s picture encapsulates the sunset at a local beach as Sue and I watched and waited.

One thought on “Why do acronyms bug me? And what has that got to do with Zip files?”

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