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The Ambiguity Of Acronyms

Today I feel the need to blog my thoughts about something I've realized for a long time: we suck at acronyms. And by "we", I mean journalists, bloggers, and other online content providers. In particular, in the online realm, this is a needless problem that is easily remedied. More on this in a bit.

The Ghost

Here's an example I see all too often:

All eyes will be on Apple as the week-long WWDC 2017 kicks off with the keynote speech. And while Apple fans will be salivating over iOS and macOS updates, along with whatever shiny new hardware is unveiled, it's Siri that will make or break the event.

I found that blurb from a popular technology news website. What does "WWDC" stand for? There was nothing within the article that explains it. As an author, you're either assuming all your readers know the acronym, or you're consciously deciding "Screw it. If they don't know, let them figure it out on their own." If you're curious, "WWDC" stands for "Worldwide Developers Conference", which is a conference held annually in California by Apple Inc. But you're an Apple developer and you already knew that, didn't you?

Where's Waldo?

Here's another example I see a lot:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Integer rhoncus ullamcorper ex, ac maximus turpis ultrices sed. Nullam sed consectetur mi. Nullam dictum magna dolor, vitae aliquam nisi dignissim dignissim. Fusce varius ipsum risus, quis hendrerit est imperdiet vitae. Cras venenatis accumsan velit id posuere. Nunc euismod sem Vitae Rutrum Porttitor. Maecenas sit amet pulvinar nisi, ut tincidunt lorem. Donec fringilla, nisl vel fringilla tempor, dui lorem dignissim augue, et fringilla ipsum tellus vel nunc.

Pellentesque sit amet orci in leo consectetur luctus eu quis mauris. Ut sed lacinia mi. Phasellus cursus ornare purus ut elementum. Aliquam erat volutpat. Ut et venenatis elit. Morbi facilisis odio vitae arcu facilisis pulvinar quis non ante. Morbi id efficitur tortor, vel ullamcorper lorem. Nullam purus ante, suscipit id augue in, volutpat tincidunt sem VRP. Etiam ipsum mauris, facilisis eu eleifend sed, pretium sed mi. Fusce metus lectus, ultrices eget bibendum laoreet, fringilla nec lacus.

What does "VRP" in the second paragraph stand for? It stands for "Vitae Rutrum Porttitor", which is in the first paragraph. In the usage above, there is no explicit connection between the two. As a reader, I appreciate the good intention. But you force your readers to play a game of "Where's Waldo?" when you do this. How many paragraphs do you expect your audience to re-read to find the spelled out acronym words? And will they remember where they left off when they find it?

"The Ghost" and "Where's Waldo" are both middle fingers to your readers. And here's what's worse: they won't know which sin you've committed. Should they re-read and hope to find the acronym definition? Or head straight to Google and try their luck there?

The Browser Solution

If you are a producer of content on the web, the solution is simple: use the <abbr> tag, which defines an abbreviation or an acronym. Here is an example:

<abbr title="Hypertext Markup Language">HTML</abbr>

The "title" attribute can be used in the <abbr> tag to show the full version of the abbreviation/acronym when you hover your mouse over the <abbr> element. This is what it looks like when rendered in a typical desktop web browser:

Dave Mason Acronyms Blogging HTML Abbr

The mouse hover action doesn't translate to a device without a mouse (eg cell phones and tablets). But the <abbr> tag can still be useful with a little help from CSS. Aurelio De Rosa shows you how in his article Enhancing the HTML abbr Element on Mobile. In short, CSS can be designed to display the value of the "title" attribute of the <abbr> element in parentheses on mobile devices. Here's an example:

Dave Mason Acronyms Blogging HTML Abbr

I implore you to consistently identify acronyms with the <abbr> tag/element. Sure, there may be some acronyms that are so universally known, that defining them is superfluous. Those can be forgiven. Where do you draw the line? I'll leave that up to you. But when in doubt, define it. Don't assume all of your readers come from the same background as you. What seems obvious to you isn't necessarily second nature to your readers. Help them out. They'll be appreciative.


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