A Word, Please: Are initials in parentheses really necessary?

People sometimes tell me to tell other people what to do, linguistically that is. I’ll get an email saying something like, “It drives me nuts when people say ‘Fruit is a healthy snack’ instead of ‘Fruit is a healthful snack.’ Please write a column telling them to stop.”

The language peeves vary. But the thinking is always the same: I have a soapbox, so naturally I should use it to scold and chide everyone within earshot.

As if. It’s just not appropriate for someone who writes for a newspaper to use that privilege to boss readers around. Besides, if I could, I would never get around to championing reader peeves because I’d be too busy ranting about my own biggest peeve: initials in parentheses.

Oh, how I’d go on. I would start by citing any of a billion examples in which writers insert an organization’s initials in parentheses after its name for no reason other than to say, “Hey, this organization doesn’t just have a name. It has initials, too!”

I’d give examples of passages from articles I’ve edited, stuff like “The Organization for Overzealous Initial Inserters (OOII), working in concert with the National Academy for the Advancement of Annoyances (NAAA) and the Federal Bureau of Textual Irritants (FBTI) have created a search engine optimization (SEO) tool for emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) to join the Service Employees’ Collaborative Collective (SECC).”

If it were appropriate to rant about this, and it’s not, I’d equate these inserted initials to speed bumps that stop the reader dead in his tracks. One minute, he’s chugging along in full reader brain, gobbling up words as they were meant to be consumed. Then, bam: an ugly interruption right in the middle of what had been a smoothly flowing idea.

Were I at liberty to go on such a tirade, I’d argue that this is the knee-jerk practice of writers who have forgotten who they work for. They see an opportunity to proudly flaunt their dazzling knowledge of how the Federal Bureau of Investigation is also called the FBI, then they seize that opportunity, with no regard for whether it benefits readers.

I would go on about the shocking number of times I’ve seen writers force feed readers initials that never again come up in the article. But I’d be just as scathing in my criticism of cases in which the initials do come up later.

I’d point out that readers don’t memorize initials on command. So a parenthetical insertion after a first reference is usually forgotten immediately, anyway. Then, when the initials reappear later in the piece, readers either gloss over the already-forgotten term or they must go back to the beginning to relearn it.

If I could rant, I’d champion a far more elegant practice followed by numerous publications, which goes like this: Avoid inserted initialisms whenever possible. Instead use words the reader already knows, for example, “the organization,” “the union,” “the company,” “the workers’ group,” “the firm.” And cast aside your paralyzing fear that you’ll be hauled off to writer jail if you spell out “search engine optimization” more than once.

I would add that, even in the rare cases when it makes sense to use initials throughout the remainder of a longer article, there’s still no reason to insert parentheses after the first reference. If the second reference comes soon enough after the first, the writer will understand the initials just as easily without the parenthetical insertion.

And if I could get on this glorious soapbox, I would conclude by stating that the practice of inserting initials in parentheses is downright rude. It tells the reader: “I refuse to speak your language. If you want the information in this article, you must learn to speak mine.” Not cool.

But of course, I could never use this platform for such a self-serving rant. That would be wrong.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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