I don’t have a lot of time to cook, so I am always looking for new sources of easy and at least somewhat healthy recipes. Recently, I bought a cookbook titled Mediterranean Every Day (MED) by Sheela Prakash. This cookbook is great because the recipes usually have a short list of ingredients, and most dishes don’t require a lot of time or prep to prepare. Recently I made a pasta dish from MED. The dish used pesto, charred radicchio, and penne pasta or similar. The cool thing is that the pesto part of the dish has many variations depending on the types of greens and nuts you like or have on hand.  I followed the instructions in MED and used pine nuts, basil, and jarlberg (PBJ) as the main ingredients for the pesto. I toasted the pine nuts, cut the Jarlsberg, then put the PBJ into a food processor along with a little garlic, salt, and lemon juice. Once the PBJ turned into a paste I mixed it with the pasta. Other variations include pine nuts, endive, and edam cheese (PEE), walnuts, endive, and edam (WEE) or cashews, rosemary, and parmesan (CRP) which sounds promising.  Although many combinations work well, using pine nuts, Oaxaca cheese, and okra might be super mushy and taste like, well you get the point. Given all the variations and flexibility, this recipe from MED has become one of my “go to” dishes for a quick week-night dinner.

I don’t know if the above paragraph made my point so in the spirit of clarity, I’ll spell it out. I’m not a big fan of acronyms. In fact, I think acronyms are a good way to put a barrier between you and your reader/reviewer (see further reading below for more). Many academic writers like to use acronyms to save space. Unfortunately, unless the acronym is very well known (think PBS for phosphate buffered saline) the onus is on the reader to remember the acronym. Now that we have smart phones to remember for us, keeping an acronym stored in our puny non-digital domes has become, at least for me, more difficult.

When I am reading a paper or grant and I run into an unfamiliar acronym, I am faced with two choices. Either go back and find the definition of the acronym, which I clearly blew past, or keep reading and not be sure what the acronym means. Sometimes when I go back to find the definition I can’t – which is annoying, time consuming, and I end up moving on anyway. Here’s where the barrier comes in. Reading an acronym that is undefined is like reading a word that is undefined. Your mind skips over it and you miss the deeper meaning. In the recipe above, when you read the acronym MED did you think Mediterranean cooking or did you think something else like medicine? Maybe you didn’t think anything and your brain just glossed over it. You risk losing clarity with unnecessary acronyms.

Sometimes an acronym is like an acronym or word you already know. Does PBJ and garlic sound like a good combo? It’s very difficult to read the above recipe and not think about one of my favorite sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly. You might think this would never happen, but I recently read a grant where one of the frequently used acronyms also spelled out a familiar signal transduction factor. This similarity was distracting and I had to keep mentally reminding myself of the acronym’s meaning.

Of course, sometimes an acronym may spell out a different word entirely, and I’m sure as an astute writer you would never let that happen. The word could be in a different language, though, giving your multilingual readers a good laugh or gasp. I wish I could say that’s my problem but unfortunately, I only speak and write in one language.

If you are to avoid “unnecessary” acronyms, this begs the question as to which acronyms are necessary or at least acceptable. As a reminder, the general rule for using an acronym is that you should use the word or phrase at least three times to justify making this abbreviation. I’m not sure where this rule originated, but it seems reasonable and can be found in many writing/grammar type websites. Assuming you’ve heeded the above recommendation and feel the need to proceed with an acronym or two, then consider the following.  If the acronym is well known in your field, and the paper/grant is directed to those in your field (ie a specialty journal) then you are probably fine. Alternatively, if the name doesn’t mean anything to the reader anyway, you are probably fine as long as the acronym doesn’t form another familiar word. For example, I used to publish on heparan sulfate proteoglycans and glycosaminoglycans, fondly known as HSPGs or HS GAGs. If I was writing for my matrix-loving colleagues, I would go ahead and use these acronyms. If I was writing for a general audience, I’d consider using HSPG as long as I’m using it frequently and the context helps remind the reader of the definition. I might skip the GAG abbreviation, for fear of conjuring memories of a regrettable beer-vodka mix, bad burger, or both. The same concept applies to lengthy chemical names or a chemical combo/molecular hybrid, etc especially if this is something you are mentioning frequently. If you have the freedom to make up an acronym for a new compound or biologic that you’ve derived, try to generate an acronym/abbreviation that serves as a reminder to the function of that compound.

In the end, when it comes to acronyms, less is more. And with that, I say TTFN!

Further reading

An Abbreviations FAQ – blog on using abbreviations, APA style

Avoiding Barriers Between your Work and your Reviewer – blog post by yours truly on clarity in grant writing

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