Use Truncated Words with Caution

By Mark Nichol

When is it acceptable to use abbreviated versions of words? The type of publication and the context of the content determine the suitability of truncated words.

Some words used in even the most formal writing are shortened versions of words that now seem stiffly pedantic: auto is the first part of automobile, zoo derives from “zoological gardens,” and flu was snatched from the middle of influenza. Phone and plane are taken from the third and second syllables of telephone and airplane, which are themselves becoming obsolete.

But what about, for example, carb (from carbohydrate), hood (from neighborhood), or perp (from perpetrator)? Such terms may be found in newspaper and magazine feature stories (though not in news articles) and in less formal contexts such as blog posts and mass-market books, but they’re highly unlikely to be found in scholarly texts, academic papers, and business reports.

This discussion doesn’t answer the question I posed in the first paragraph, however. How do you determine whether abbreviated terms such as these are appropriate for more formal content? The key is to avoid being an innovator. Once sociology texts refer to burbs, papers on nutrition mention veggies, and science journals discuss nukes, you’ll know it’s safe to employ these terms. Until then, be more circumspect about using such casualisms except in vernacular writing.

Writing and speech are becoming more informal, and modern usage also reflects the inclination toward faster-paced communication enabled by more sophisticated technology, but acceptance of colloquial vocabulary still lags in general acceptance by years — if at all.

That last point is significant: Writers who use colloquial abbreviations risk being ahead of the curve, especially if that curve never manifests itself, and convention continues along in a straight line. Use of casualisms is especially questionable in printed books, even those dealing with popular culture and other general-interest topics, because of the delay in publication between drafting the manuscript and publication of the book. By the time the product is released, months later, the public may have rejected or forgotten the term, and its persistence in print may distract readers.

In informal, ephemeral writing such as blog posts, anyone can form new boundaries, but in more formal contexts, be a follower, not a leader.

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8 Responses to “Use Truncated Words with Caution”

  • Bill

    One place truncated words are widely accepted is newspaper headlines, especially in tabloids, even if the story is a news article.

  • Matt Gaffney

    This is a topic that really strikes a chord with me, not only because abbreviations are often used by the undereducated in their fruitless quest to seem cool, but also because abbreviations undermine and degrade English.
    For example, many people use the U.S.P.S.’s two-letter abbreviations for state names as if they were valid abbreviations rather than a bureaucratic short-cut to deliver a letter. What truly professional writer would use “MO” for Missouri in any context other than a U.S.P.S. address?
    One of English’s most endearing features is that it shamelessly poaches from other languages when the poached word or phrase provides a nuance that English’s word inventory can’t quite convey. At the same time, abuse of abbreviations doesn’t provide subtle nuances; it underscores ignorance, laziness, and imprecision, and it fosters a mind-set that used to be described as “good enough for government work.”
    If intelligent, educated, experienced writers accept unnecessary abbreviations, those people who aren’t particularly concerned with the heritage and posterity of English will embrace unnecessary abbreviations, for they don’t know any better.
    Understanding and solving societal problems requires that people delve into the intrinsic meanings of words and phrases. Unnecessary abbreviations dull the mind and thereby dull our capacity to understand what we’re talking about.
    Leave abbreviations to letter carriers and computer programmers and let the rest of us challenge our minds with nuance and insight.

  • Peter

    You appear to answer the question in the negative, i.e. when it is not acceptable to use abbreviations. If that was the case, I think the most important point should have been stated: it is never acceptable to use abbreviations or truncated words when the meaning of the text would be unclear to the reader. This rule applies to formal as well as informal writing. As the mother who sent a text to her daughter asking whether she was coming on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, but only wrote the initials for those three days.

  • Nelida K.

    I totally agree that casualisms and not-yet-lexicalized truncated nouns should be shunned by the careful writer; yet, in novels and short stories where direct speech is involved, it would be all right, since otherwise the characters’ speech may end up sounding stilted or unnatural. This said, the writer should perhaps slip in the full term once so that uninformed readers can afterwards follow the story without stopping to wonder. As in MO for modus operandi, or CSI for (well, everybody knows that these days!), or DUI for driving under the influence, etc. etc. But I really hate it when authors, trying to sound cool and in the know, deluge us with acronyms for systems and law-enforcement or army units all throughout the text, whether in dialog or not, that end up being totally meaningless to the reader.
    In conclusion, Mark is right: context rules all. And usage.

  • Christopher

    As an American living abroad, I’d like to raise the point that —as language evolves, stateside (all 50)— we who live outside the ‘language arena’ of the U.S. are not often rapidly aware of new American-English words or usages. Case in point: It was only a couple of years ago that I was surprised to learn that “issues” was now synonymous with “problems”. More recently, I found out that “sick” can now be used in a positive way to describe something completely fantastic. This all came to mind simply because Nelida K., in the post before mine, said, “or CSI for (well, everybody knows that these days!)” . . . and I have NO idea what CSI means (mind you, I live in France, not a cave .. in spite of the abundance of Neanderthal vestiges here). Bottom line is, here’s perhaps another reason to use truncated words with caution . . . even in the internet age! Especially, changed meanings without context explanations (“MO”).. are treacherous.

  • Ryan

    I definitely agree with this article. Too often are there really informal people out there who abbreviate things without thinking about it. I myself am guilty of it a lot, but I always go through a fix them (unless it’s the speaker’s slang, in which case was purposely written).

    Interesting abbreviation of ‘perpetrator’- I haven’t heard that one before!

    There are also too many words that can mean too many things if used in a non-mainstream context, such as the old slang ‘beast’ that was popular a few years back. Those should probably be a higher priority to avoid, even.

  • Roseline

    I feel if truncated words or abbreviations have to be used in either formal or informal writing,it must have been introduced earlier in the article so its easy for the readers to identify with it through the write-up.

  • Phil Radler

    Mr. Gaffney,
    Beautifully said. I’m shamelessly adding your post to my arsenal of editor’s tips, tricks, and tirades. (You’ll get full credit, of course!)

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