Readers most often complain about the acronyms they see in documents. Acronyms are abbreviations pronounced as words such as "SCUBA," which means self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.
Acronyms can be useful ways to simplify complex terms. Sometimes, acronyms are essential. We need to use some acronyms like ATC, VOR and DME in the world of Air Traffic Control because without them, pilots would instead have to say they need "vectors to shoot a Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Range approach co-located with Distance Measuring Equipment."
To help its readers, the Department of Defense publishes a List of Approved Acronyms. But readers might be less than happy to sort through the 6866 acronyms on that list. Even the FAA publishes a Glossary of Airport Acronyms Used in FAA Documents.
Nonetheless, it's hard for readers to constantly refer to an appendix or list to understand what the acronyms mean. That's why most federal guidelines, including the FAA Handbook Writing User Friendly Documents (PDF), tell us to "define each abbreviation or acronym the first time you use it."
Some judges say they can distinguish effective from ineffective attorneys by the frequency with which they use acronyms. Here's what it looks like when an angry judge uses a one paragraph Court Order to demand that attorneys quit using acronyms no one understands.
Summary: Use acronyms sparingly and always be sure your readers understand the acronyms you use.
If you want to schedule free, custom training for your staff to put your policies, technical reports, correspondence or other documents into plain language. To do that, or for questions or comments, please contact:
Dr. Bruce V. Corsino
FAA Plain Language Program Manager