Words communicate: letters don't.

Sep 14 2009 by Janet Howd Print This Article

What value does the current fashion for setting down only the initial letters of words that are crucial to a writer's argument add to reader comprehension - especially when, as in a recent article in Harvard Business Review titled "Executive Physicals: What's the ROI?" no mention whatsoever is made anywhere in the text of the fact that ROI means "return on investment".

Letters alone, however large, are primitive instruments with which to prize open the inner core of meaning and avoid linguistic confusion. It was for this very reason that human beings long ago devised a system that combined letters into clusters, named those clusters 'words' and assigned each cluster a specific significance.

When typeset had to be put in laboriously by hand it might have saved print-setters' time and publishers' money to initialise more . But the current fad for saving space by forcing readers to search for the meaning of an acronym merely wastes their time.

Take this example from no less a communicator than Bill Clinton :

"In western Africa, Archer Daniels Midland partners with local cacao growers and cooperatives to provide support and education in areas ranging from agronomics to business management to HIV/AIDS prevention. Beyond producing considerable benefits for local farmers and their communitiesÖ ADM ensure a sustainable supply of high-quality cacao beans for its customers well into the future. In the United States, where ADM transports millions of tons of crops and finished products via inland waterways each year, the company funds major river clean-up efforts and encourages employees to get directly involved as volunteers."

I'll bet you had to search back to discover that "ADM" stands for a company name and what name that was.

Of course acronyms signifying world renowned banks (UBS) or major companies (IBM) have long been in use, as have those defining roles such as MD or CEO or HRH. But - Lo and behold! - I then come across an article on line claiming that: "IBM does not stand for a once dominant but now rarely heard-of computer company, International Business Machines Corporation, but for the Izu Bonin-Marianas Island arc in the Western Pacific."

Googling further I discover that IBM also stands for: International Brotherhood of Magicians; Initial Body Mass; Italian By Marriage; and Injection Blow Moulding! Wow. What confusion that lot could cause.

And therein is the nub of my argument.

When we are writing to explain we should be aiming to set down our ideas as clearly as possible. Capitals, because of their size, may stop readers in their tracks for a moment, but if when they look behind the caps they can only see a hall of mirrors - any one of which could be hiding the door to the passage they are meant to pass along in order to follow an argument - the only thing those block letters stand for is a blockage to meaning.

To give capitals their due, there is one current use I can think of that is valuable and that is when texting. Then, capitals are akin to shouting.

I should now like to make use of that stylistic ploy to say as forcefully as possible: GO EASY ON THE ACRONYMS because though capitals may stand tall on a page they fall short on communication.

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About The Author

Janet Howd
Janet Howd

Janet Howd is a voice coach who works with corporate, academic, legal, theatrical and private clients in the UK, North America, Australia and Europe.