A Guide to UAE (Using Acronyms Effectively)

Acronyms. Initials.  TLAs. Call them what you want — we consultants, trainers and educators love to use them.  Unfortunately, we don’t always use them well.

The title of this post is an example of how to violate one of several rules of Using Acronyms Effectively.  To be sure, violating these rules won’t result in the sort of punishment that you might get for breaking a major law in the actual UAE. Nevertheless, being on the receiving-end of a badly crafted acronym can feel pretty painful.  As designers of acronyms (Acronym Architects?), we all could benefit from a higher degree of care in generating what are often Astoundingly Abhorrent Abbreviations.

Why Acronyms?

From a learning design point of view, acronyms can be used to effectively pack a large amount of information inside a small “container” of two, three or more easy-to-remember alphanumeric symbols.  With their high signal-to-information ratio, acronyms provide a efficient way to convey complex ideas, quickly and simply.  There are other reasons to use acronyms (for example, as a way to establish an “ingroup” culture, or as a way to create a trademark), but we’ll focus on efficiency-of-communication in this post.

In the English language, acronyms didn’t really take off until the 20th century. English acronyms are kind of like the field of Instructional Systems Design (ISD):  They’re largely an outgrown of the military-industrial complex, and continue to proliferate in conjunction with the spread of ever-more-sophisticated technologies.  As our jobs get increasingly complicated and the pace of change in our working environments quicken, we humans look for ways to more speedily access and learn new information. We may or may not like acronyms (or ISD, for that matter), but we find them very useful.

Here’s a sequence of four handy steps / guidelines for developing new acronyms.  These are not definitive “rules” in the traditional sense of Strunk & White, but some best practices to keep you from getting whipped by angry learners:

Step#1:  K.I.S.S.

Step#2: L.I.P.S.

Step#3:  T.H.R.O.A.T.

Step#4:  A.A.A.A.A.

Here’s how it works…

Step#1 :  K.I.S.S.  (Keep It Simple, Stupid )

If you’re going to make a set of guidelines about creating acronyms, you’ve just got to start with the ‘ol KISS... it’s a classic… and it’s true.  The longer an acronym gets, the less usable it becomes as a mnemonic.  There’s a reason that TLAs are TLAs:  three is good  (ATM, PDF, LAN, ROI).  Four?  Well, ok, if you must (GAAP, NATO, JPEG).   Five? Hmmm… unless you’re starting to use multiple letters from the words you’re abbreviating (RADAR, FOREX), or riffing off a widely-used existing word or acronym (LASER, SCUBA), then you’re pushing it  (TOEFL, ROTFL).

Want to go beyond five letter acronyms (FLAs)?  Well, now you’re entering what I like to call the “dangerous territory of SPOMTI” (Seven Plus Or Minus Two Items), one of the convenient rules of thumb used for “chunking” information.  My recommendation is to save your 6+ letter acronyms for only the really special or important stuff (EBITDA), and even then, recognize you’re going to need to spend a long time recoding those acronyms for the learners before they can use it as an effective retrieval mechanism.

Every rule has its exceptions, and one of the exceptions to this rule on creating acronyms is when you’re doing it for personal use.  I love my A.V.O.C.A.D.O. ..it may seem silly and impractical to you, but to me it’s great (so BACK OFF, OK?).   In addition to helping me remember seven very important things, it also invokes a evocative metaphor, which brings us to the next rule…

Step #2:  L.I.P.S. (Leveraging Imagery Powers Study)

Keep it simple, but keep it impactful… a  KISS is boring and forgotten unless it touches us intimately. Acronyms which use powerful imagery — and preferably imagery that relates in some way to the information we’re recoding — will be more memorable.

(By the way, if it feels like you’re forcing your words to fit into an acronym like I’m doing here with LIPS., then it’s not really a KISS either…. still I get points for the overall memory-story-metaphor-thing…)

For example, sometimes in training materials I come across acronyms like B.I.R.D.  or H.O.M.E. which have nothing to do with the subject matter they are encapsulating.  While cute and possibly memorable in their own way, they lack the impact of acronyms that convey an overarching message.

Here are some better example of acronyms that use clever “containers” to enhance their memorability and convey a bigger message:

S.M.A.R.T.   (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) is an old stand-by used for goal-setting, and a handy mental checklist for annual performance reviews.  The only thing better than SMART goals?   SMARTER (…Ethical, Recorded) goals, of course!    (..and yes, someone out there has already done S.M.A.R.T.E.S.T. goals, as well as S.M.A.R.T. A.S.S. goals… so don’t bother…) 

B.L.O.T. (Bottom Line On Top) is used by some folks to remind themselves to stop yammering and get to the point of what they’re trying to say. This one is not so much about the meaning of the verb “blot” as much as how it sounds:  “Blot!!  Blot!!”

E.A.S.Y. ( Eat, Active, Sleep, You) is author Tracy Hogg‘s sequence for newborn baby care.  This acronym is designed to reduce the anxiety of first-time parents by revealing the predictable behavioral patterns of typical infants, and to encourage those parents to make a little space for themselves in the process.

R.O.M.E.O.  (Retired/Rich Old Man Eating Out) ..’nuff said.

Here’s a bad one:

I.E.D.  (Improvised Educational Device): I thought of this, decided against posting it, then noticed on a Google search that other people were already using it.  I suppose a self-styled “guerrilla” teacher might talk about  deploying IEDs, but as my grandfather would say, this is in poor taste.  Imagery is indeed a powerful thing, and if we’re amateurs, it can blow up in our own faces.


Step #3 :  T.H.R.O.A.T.  ( Try Having Respect for Other Acronyms’ Turf)

One of the things we like to do sometimes is to appropriate another acronym for our own purposes.  We think we’re having fun and being all clever, but unless our concept truly plays off the concept we’re referring to (see previous rule), we may confuse the person we’re communicating with. That’s why the title of this post (U.A.E.) is ineffective, except as a nerdy little joke.

This guideline is particularly important within a specific field or industry.  While some acronym-jargon-crazed consultants bandy about terms like PTO (Paid Time Off) as a way to obfuscate a simple concept called vacation (IT’S JUST VACATION, OK???), you would never hear PTO used in that way in a school setting, where it usually means “Parent Teacher Organization.”

The military, a major abuser of acronyms, often has to dance around its own legacy acronyms. For example, PCS (Permanent Change of Station) and PCA (Permanent Change of Assignment) are widely used acronyms that are sometimes used as verbs (“I just got PCS’ed”), while TDY or TAD (Temporary Duty Assignment) is used instead of the expected TDA, because TDA has a bunch of other military meanings already, including “Table of Distribution and Allowances,”  “Tactical Decision Aids,” “Target Damage Assessment” and “Temporary Danger Area.”   (HT to @AviT, and @SteveG… omg, don’t get me started about acronyms in teh world of online chat)

Step #4:  (A.A.A.A.A.) Abolish All Artlessly Alphabetic Acronyms

..and while you’re at it,  A.B.C. (Abandon Boring Contrivances), too.   There are just too many of these already.  As tempting as it may be to organize your content into “The Three S’s” or “The Four Rs,” nobody’s going to remember your particular three Ss, or 4 Qs, or Ts, or whatever it was that you said.  This may come across as harsh… truth is I’m not against using alliteration as an auditory mechanism to improve information retention and recall (I2R2), but these sorts of acronyms get used way too much and quickly lose their potency… especially when they don’t get presented to the learner in a very “auditory” way.

I’m gonna throw-in A.C.T. to this category… it’s more like  a mix between rules #3 and #4, but the basic idea is that there are enough of them out there already… we don’t need any new ACTs.

As I mentioned before, this isn’t a definitive list of “rules” per se, rather a series of best practices in creating acronyms. What do you think?  Did I miss something? What other guidelines would you recommend?  What exceptions to the above can you think of?

Ta & Ttys!


About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on January 13, 2010, in Communication Skills, Information Design, Jargon, Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. F.A.N.T.A.S.T.I.C
    Finally A Normal Topic About Strategic Terminology Involving Consultants.

    This Only Needs Gil’s Unnecessary Embellishment

  2. The worst is in documentation (especially IT documentation) when different people use different TLAs to mean different things. If you are going to use TLAs, at least provide a glossary somewhere (at the back of a manual, on a wiki) to explain yourself.

    Steve Thinks Unnecessary Phrases Idiotic, Depressing

    Oh Boy – Get Yourself (a) Nanny

  3. the ONLY acronyms i like to encounter is when it’s used to abbreviate a very long name in a written piece.

    typing/reading “Acute Ulcerative Periodontitis (AUP)” gets old fast.. so i welcome when i see it acronymed in the rest of the study…

    aside from that.. im not really a fan of cutesy acronyms… as far as i’m concerned, it’s yet another “consulting-used nerd talk” topic…


  4. Whoa There Folksies!

    Smartass Talking Fails Unless

    Haiku Adds Humor

  5. (i think Gil’s FANTASTIC TONGUE is the winner of this round of comments… thanks guys…)

  6. I love your writing style… easy to understand with the right touch of humor.

    Posted a related entry on my blog today… http://musingsaboutsoftwaredevelopment.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/wtf-weathering-the-front-and-other-tlas/

    Wishing you continued success!


  1. Pingback: Dept of Abused Terminology: The “Aha!” Moment « Meme Menagerie

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