Dammit, I'm tired.
And I've had more than enough of GOP.
You see, I just can't keep track of acronyms. Unfortunately, though, it seems like every worthwhile news story has one. Or two. Or five.
I understand their allure. Reporters are keen on using them in articles, because they cut on word count and aid the flow of a story. Editors love their compactness when they're tasked with writing a headline that must fit in a small space -- say, a single column of newspaper type.
But for readers, these things can get confusing -- especially when a story juggles three or four of them. Fortunately, HTML provides convenient methods for defining acronyms and abbreviations. Unfortunately, few news sites use them.
For those reasons (and others), every acronym and abbreviation in a news story should be defined.
It's easy to do. (And this is old hat for many Holovaty.com readers, so bear with me.) When you've got an acronym or abbreviated phrase, surround it with either
<abbr></abbr>. Then spell out the acronym (or unabbreviate the abbreviation) and stick that in the
title="" attribute, like so:
<acronym title="Bachman-Turner Overdrive">BTO</acronym>
<abbr title="Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band">Sgt. Pepper's</abbr>
The result: Users of modern browsers will see the fully spelled-out phrase in a browser tooltip when they mouse over the text.
(Additionally, you can use CSS to style your acronyms and abbreviations in a certain way. For instance, this site gives them a light, dotted underline and changes the cursor into an arrow with a question mark. More information on this technique is at Dive Into Accessibility.)
When it comes to online news, this technique would benefit both parties involved: The readers, and the journalists themselves.
Helping the readers
This one's a no-brainer. Acronym and abbreviation definitions clear things up. They make article comprehension easier for folks who have a tough time with alphabet soup, and they stay conveniently out of the way of people who know what the phrases mean already.
- Pop-culture references that some readers might not understand: J Lo, Britney, Dickie V
- Geographical locations: Miss., Mass., Minn. (The Web is global. Not everybody cares to memorize the U.S. state abbreviations.)
- Time zones: 5 p.m. EST
- Dates: Tues., Dec. 17. (This may seem silly to you, but put yourself in the shoes of a reader with poor English skills. I, for one, certainly could use help with Spanish abbreviations.)
Helping the journalists
HTML acronyms and abbreviations are a headline writer's dream come true. Even on the Web, editors are concerned about headline length and "fitting" headlines in alloted spaces. (I spent a summer at washingtonpost.com and recall working hard trying to piece together headlines that were short enough for the home page but still made sense.) But the
<acronym> tag makes things easy.
No longer should editors mumble, "Is Karzai well-known enough to be referred to in a headline by only his last name?" They can simply use Karzai's last name in the headline and let curious users mouse over the word to find out his full name and title.
No longer should headline writers wonder, "Do most people know what HCFA is?" The people who do, will. The people who don't, will look to see.
This could even be a chance for editors to use more unconventional abbreviations. But I'm not advocating nonsensical abbreviations, such as, well, PNYCTRP, that a reader couldn't possibly figure out. Rather, here's a good rule of thumb: If at least 25 percent of your readers will know what the acronym means, use it. Otherwise, spell it out. Either way, use
Real-world headline examples:
- news.bbc.co.uk: ANC re-elects Mbeki as leader
- Boston Herald: Ted K gives support to Kerry in 2004 race for White House
- sacticket.com: Q&A: Art Rodriguez
A side note: First-mention, or always?
Some say it's only necessary to define an acronym or abbreviation on its first occurrence. I disagree with this. It's no good defining an acronym in the first paragraph of a news story if you're not going to remind people what it is 20 paragraphs later. (That's the semantic-markup version of dropping the ball.)
A reader should not have to scroll a half-dozen paragraphs up a document just to be reminded of what an acronym stands for. Acronym definitions aren't just one-time explanations; they're also reminders.