Sundry Misusages: Abbreviations and Acronyms


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The English language, like any other developed language, is replete with standard usages. A standard usage refers to the accepted way a word, phrase, expression, idiom or idea is normally used or applied in writing or speech. Usually, usages are accepted as standard on account of history, tradition, convention, etiquette, politeness or political correctness. Such standard usages straddle several aspects of the language, including register, idioms, punctuations, capitalization and so on. The protocol of standard usage is that certain words, phrases or expressions are supposed to be used in particular ways and specific applications and with assigned meanings. It is an abuse of usage to apply such elements of the language in otherwise unacceptable ways. Such abuses are captured under sundry misusages here. Curiously, such abuses are so habitually committed and with laxity as if they do not matter. In fact, editing experience shows that many writers operate their own standards. Any attempt to correct is often at the editor’s peril, unless the subjects come under the editor’s scalpel voluntarily. And many a time, an editor encounters such editing blues whereby some writers claim the abuses are a matter of their own style, forgetting that each writer’s style is no more than his or her distinctive way of applying the accepted rules. This is why we are highlighting some of the popularly abused standard usages, to stop deluding ourselves and to avoid misleading others and muddying the all-important business of effective communication, particularly in writing. Let us note, however, that the matter of standard usages can be very controversial. Indeed, ‘some grammarians consider usage as consisting of “contentious issues of grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, and discourse”’ (Crystal, cited in “Pop” Errors in English: Writers Beware). The book says the way to navigating such contentions, ‘is to emphasize what is appropriate in view of the dynamic nature of the English language, and the goal of this attitude is to avoid getting “in the way of the meaning” you are trying to convey in your writing,’ stressing that “What is appropriate is as determined by accepted rules, standards and conventions.” It adds that “Observance of such rules and standards or convention is one of those exertions that can set you apart as a good writer. Conversely, indulgence in wrong usage can project you as a careless, if not an untutored or uneducated, writer.” As usual, we will highlight and discuss observed examples of misusage to help us vividly demonstrate the importance of correct usage. We begin with the little matter of the correct usage of abbreviations and acronyms. Often, writers suffuse their texts with abbreviations and acronyms, even where and when not required. The rule is to use the abbreviation or acronym of a name in lieu of the full name in every subsequent occurrence. In other words, at first mention, you indicate the abbreviation or acronym in bracket after the full name for subsequent use in your text, especially where your text contains many sentences. For example, if the name World Health Organization will recur later in your text, you put the acronym or abbreviation (WHO) after it at first mention, so that when you refer to that name later, you only need to write WHO. This is what we mean: The World Health Organization (WHO) has launched immunization in the state as part of the 2019 WHO nationwide programme. It would have been terribly unwieldy if we have repeated the full name at the second mention in the same sentence. And even if your text runs into tens and tens of pages, just keep using the acronym at each subsequent mention. This approach keeps your writing tidy, elegant, easy to read, understand and use. Moreover, it economizes your words, sharpens your writing and saves your time. And all of these can determine the difference between elegant writing and ponderous, sloppy writing. We have also observed that the terms abbreviation and acronym are often used loosely interchangeably. This should not be in all cases, because while all acronyms are abbreviations, all abbreviations are not acronyms. For example, terms like WHO, UNESCO< INEC and JAMB are both acronyms and abbreviations, but terms like UNDP, ICC, CCB, CCT are abbreviations only. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines abbreviation as “a short form of a word or phrase” as in TVC for Television Continental; and acronym as “an abbreviation consisting of the first letter of each word in the name of something pronounced as a word” as in WHO for the World Health Organization. So, all acronyms are abbreviations, but not all abbreviations are acronyms. The delicate difference between an abbreviation and an acronym is that the latter, though an abbreviation, is always pronounced as a word, as ln JAMB, whereas an abbreviation is always pronounced one letter after another, as in UNDP. One more word on the usage of abbreviations and acronyms: Where an acron...