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The Power of Abbreviations


Techniques > Use of language > Persuasive language > The Power of Abbreviations

The use of abbreviations | The power of brevity | The power of naming | The power of acronymsThe power of three | The power of mystery | Using abbreviations | See also



Abbreviations are condensed word-sets that can be surprising in the power they can add to your communications.  

The use of abbreviations

We often reduce frequently-used short phrases or word sets, usually to their initial letters (these are also called 'initialisms'). Abbreviations can also be simple shortening of individual words or word groups, such as 'Mr' for 'Mister' or 'etc' for 'et cetera'.

Abbreviation, and particularly initialism, is useful in making word sets easier and quicker to remember, write and say.

Common subjects for initial abbreviations include:

  • Organizations - eg. FBI, UN
  • Chat phrases - eg. LOL, BTW
  • Business items - eg. KPI, BCG
  • Other things - eg. ABS, SCSI

Abbreviations also can add power to communication in a number of ways, as below.

The power of brevity

Abbreviations shorten. They reduce long phrases to something we can quickly reference. We do this all the time as we simplify our inner complex thoughts in order to share information and understanding with others without confusing or boring them.

If we are unable to shorten things we may well not even bother talking about them. Abbreviations hence help us communicate when we might otherwise be silent or less eloquent.

Brevity also helps others to understand. In this way, listeners can appreciate abbreviations every bit as much as the speaker.

The power of naming

Turning something into an abbreviation makes it more concrete and tangible. It makes it a distinct 'thing' that has a life of its own. It gives it a name, calling it into separate existence. From a general subject of discussion it becomes a repeatable topic or an integral part of conversation, a word in its own right.

With this distinctive identity, the abbreviation gains both denotative and connotative meaning as it is discussed, shared, criticized and so on. Its meaning evolves with use and can gain or lose power.

Abbreviations spread more quickly if the are easier to remember. And they are easier to remember if they are short, distinctive and can be pronounced (as acronyms).

Companies often use abbreviations as names. These make the names easier to remember and work well on the international stage. Abbreviations mean the same in any language (a collection of letters) and do not run the risk of a word that means one thing in the native language but has a different meaning in another language.

The power of acronyms

Acronyms are abbreviations that can be pronounced as a word, such as LED being pronounced 'Led' rather than 'L.E.D.'. As words are easy to pronounce and remember, acronyms can add power and people creating organizations go to great lengths to produce a suitable acronym, for example the anti-smoking organization ASH stands for Action on Smoking and Health.

The word may be similar to an existing word, which can borrow from the power of the original word (if it has useful power), although this can cause confusion. Often it is better for the acronym to create a new word that is unambiguously related to its purpose.

The power of three

TLA is an abbreviation about abbreviations, although it is usually interpreted as 'Three Letter Acronym'. A key reason why it is used, and why two, four or other length abbreviations are not, is because three is a powerful force in itself, for example in the way the tricolon or triple combines phrases or sentences into three. We quite easily remember three letters, but four becomes notably more difficult. Three has a rhythm. Note the power of ABC compared with AB or ABCD.

The power of mystery

For those who do not know what they mean, abbreviations are a mystery. For abbreviations to spread they should be easy to guess, yet there is power in the mystery of not knowing.

When we encounter something we do not understand we worry that it may be a threat. Not understanding reduces our ability to control our environment and leads us to fear or inquisitiveness. When we see threat we assume power and hence conclude that those who use abbreviations are clever and powerful.

A typical situation occurs where a group of people develop a set of shared abbreviations to speed their communications, simply for convenience. Others see and hear this use and treat the people with added respect. The people like this and complexify their language to build their status further, including generating more abbreviations. In this way, jargon develops and becomes an exclusive force.

Using abbreviations

The above discussion highlights a number of ways you can use abbreviations as persuasive tools:

  • Learn the abbreviations used by others around you and use them yourself in communication with them. This shows you are an 'in-group' person who can be trusted and whose views are of interest.
  • Invent new abbreviations, making them short, distinctive and memorable. Use three letters or make them pronounceable. Avoid confusion with existing abbreviations, though hijacking existing words can be effective.
  • Teach your abbreviations to target groups, including those who you want to be your followers and 'inner-circle' members. Use the abbreviations as power symbols, speaking them on particular occasions to lend gravitas.
  • Use abbreviations to ward off outsiders and those with whom you do not want to associate.
  • Use abbreviations as a part of your personal brand, so people think of you when they hear the abbreviation.

You should also be careful with abbreviations as they can reduce the power of your communication, in particular when they are not understood and where their use leads to people becoming irritated or ignoring you.

See also

Metaphor, Parts of speech, Using syntax


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