02 August, 2012

Abbreviation Agitation

I.D. is, we all recognize, the shortened form of identification, and TV is the abbreviated form of television. Both are truncations of single words, so why does one merit periods and the other doesn’t? My preferred at-hand reference, The New Oxford American Dictionary, Third Edition, informs me that the commonest abbreviation of air conditioning is a/c — no periods, weirdly lowercase, and employing an inexplicable slash. The latest edition of the venerable grammar and usage bible, The Chicago Manual of Style, proclaims that morning times may be indicated with the writer’s choice of a.m., A.M., or AM, in roughly that order of preference. The inconsistency is maddening, and I know I am not the first or last writer who’s equally flummoxed and infuriated by such agonizing ambiguity. My solution? I manifest an almost pathological insistence on spelling words out whole.

Addressing envelopes is where this habit is most apparent. It bothers me (probably unreasonably) that the abbreviations of Street, State, and Saint are identical, and I get no small satisfaction from bucking that particular convention. Ditto for Apartment and Suite, Fort and Mount, Avenue and Lane. I do use the standard two-letter postal designations for states; however, that is a matter of systemic concordance. They’re technically not abbreviations but codes. And I’ve got me some mad respect for proprietary code systems.

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style stresses to writers the importance of remaining stylistically consistent, no matter how idiosyncratic your chosen style might be. Pick one and stick with it, to paraphrase. This explains why the often fusty New Yorker, at which White was once an eminent personage, uses an awkward mix of archaic and contemporary abbreviations that make the reader wonder if the editor cultivates a handlebar mustache and rides a velocipede to the office yet also possesses lifetime tickets to TED Talks. For example, the confused New Yorker style is to use A.T. & T. but LLC, Ph.D. but DNA, and N.Y. but CBGB. To this, I ask, WTF?

The magazines and publishing houses can’t agree. My personal reference, though it may be criticized by the Punctuation Police and Grammar Gestapo, is to do away with periods in abbreviations altogether, on those rare occasions when I lapse into Abridgment Mode. I submit to the Powers That Be that, if clarity is the goal of the writer (as it surely should be), then what’s wrong with, say, calling instant messages IMs, instead of I.M.s? What literate individual could possibly be thrown off by that? While editors adhere to their patchwork approach, I try for a little standardization, tidying as I go, not rushing like a literate lemming for an American Heritage whenever the situation calls for a term to be shortened. Why defer to convention when my way is better for everyone?

But what about acronyms? you cry. I think they speak for themselves often enough that we needn’t worry much about them. No one of reasonable mental capability and cultural hipness would spell out NASA as N-A-S-A, DARPA as D-A-R-P-A, or NAMBLA as — never mind, I just ate. As long as it looks pronounceable, with consonants and vowels in some semblance of order, the brain will likely perceive it as a word. That’s fine. Strings of seemingly random letters make lousy mnemonics, so that abbreviation’s resemblance to a word was probably deliberate. In the case of abbreviations like CIA and CEO, both of which make intelligible, if somewhat foreign-sounding acronyms, readers first encountering them chould default to their language instinct and read them as such: See-ah and Say-oh. (Two very different types of company men reading this sentence will get indignant. I don’t care.) This is merely further standardization, further simplification. This just makes sense.

Texting and typing online have gone a long way toward making periods in abbreviations obsolete. Unfortunately, capitalization has largely fallen out of practice, too, which has the potential to be even more detrimental to clarity than a few extra periods ever could. I would love to see a shift away from periods, to all-capital acronyms, but I recognize that this would only alleviate part of the abbreviation problem. Street, State, and Saint are still at issue. I can’t very well expect people to start spelling things out all the time, as I do. There’s laziness to account for, and I suspect a good-sized portion of English speakers don’t know what etc. stands for, nor how to actually spell miscellaneous. So I sigh in resignation while at the same time raving about all the ways stuff could be better if only.... For those of us in love with language, it has always been thus. It probably always will be.


  1. "And I’ve got me some mad respect for proprietary code systems."

    I laughed out loud at this. Pure genius!

  2. I was actually ranting about this the other day (to whomever would listen, though I suspect no-one). When did full stops (periods) disappear from abbreviations? Even abbreviations of the state names in my country (Australia) don't have full stops anymore. When did this happen?! Are people really that lazy they need to omit a . ?

    And man, don't get me started on trying to tell someone it's nine ante meridiem...

    Hope you're doing well.



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