Use Truncated Words with Caution
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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