The Scourge of Acronyms

“Do you want a chuddy?”, “That teacher is proper dry.”, “Don’t get caught wagging it!”.

As kids everyone loved making up their own words and secret codes. A big part of the fun is that those outside of your group don’t know what you’re talking about, but you feel special because you’re an informed insider.

Unfortunately it seems to me that this behaviour unconsciously carries through into adulthood.

“We need to raise an RFI about an NCR, the FCR on CCSC about BIM MEP IFC is DOA. We need an IDS ASAP”.

It feels great to talk like that, it makes us feel clever and like we’re in on a secret code that only the insiders can understand, just like when we were kids.

But acronyms are truly a scourge in any multi-disciplinary team based environment, which is basically every construction project. They hinder communication, they are inaccessible, and isolate those people that haven’t memorised them yet.

Meaningless

Over usage of acronyms make things become more abstract as the original terms lose meaning.

A recent Twitter poll showed that people can’t even agree what the P in MEP stands for! The acronym has become so far detached from its original meaning that no one knows what words it comes from anymore.

I once queried someone who was using an unfamiliar acronym in an email who subsequently admitted they didn’t actually know what it stood for. The acronym had taken on a life of its own.

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated in a company wide memoExcessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication” (The whole memo is worth reading).

Some people even specifically try to change an acronym’s meaning, like changing the M in BIM from Modelling to Management. This does nothing but cause confusion, for example compare the title and heading and first line of this Tekla article.

In fact, BIM is a great example of when the scope of an acronym expands way beyond its original meaning without thought to the underlying fundemental concepts.

Advantages of acronyms

Writing this post challenged me to think if there are any legitimate reasons for ever using acronyms.

In written documents it can save space, but in this age of becoming increasingly paperless, is saving a very extra bytes really worth it? I reckon that most people’s typing speeds are fast enough these days that the time saving is negligible.

On services drawings acronyms are used frequently to describe systems, for example SA (Supply Air), DHW (Domestic Hot Water), and LTHW (Low Temperature Hot Water). However, I’ve seen the likes of CWS (Cold Water Service / System), MCWS (Mains Cold Water Service), and DCW (Domestic Cold Water) all referring to the exact same type of system.

Even with explanatory legends this can cause confusion and is inaccessible to newcomers.

It is only due to physical paper size limitations and space that means having the full description is unfeasible, however as we move further towards digital ways of working and are less restricted by dead trees, this should become less of a problem.

In speech an acronym does decrease the amount of syllables needed so perhaps they’re useful here? (“WWW” being an interesting exception!)

Unfortunately, I think the area where acronyms are worst is in spoken communication. Whether thats meetings, phone calls, or casual conversations, because unlike a reader who can at least pause and research an acronym, a listener will either have to ask the speaker to explain or continue despite not fully understanding.

Stopping the spread

About 12 months ago to counter the acronym scourge I started to restrict my usage of acronyms to those I was sure that my specific discipline understood.

Then I realised how often I’m interacting with other disciplines so I began using only general construction acronyms.

Recently I’ve been working with apprentices and others brand new to the construction industry to whom even “RFI” (Request For Information) is a new and confusing term.

So while it is only a little thing and may well go unnoticed by many, in all emails, documents, and speech I try to always spell out full phrases every time. This way there is no ambiguity.

I did consider the convention of explaining the full phrase the first time with the acronym explained, e.g. “Bar Bending Schedule (BBS)”, but I still wasn’t happy that I was being as clear as I could be so now I just stick to the full phrase every single time.

The only exceptions are those acronyms understood by the general populace, such as ICT, HMRC, or ASAP.

I now feel the quality of my communication is far better and I am much better understood by others.

I encourage all others to try this and see how much clearer your communication becomes.

(NB: Anyone daring to point out the difference between acronyms and initialisms gets a Special Loser Award for Pedantary.)

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