Sin #5: Using Acronyms Without First Expanding Them

Glenda Watson Hyatt as a devil

Every industry, business and organization has them. They are well understood and simplify communication “In-house”. Yet, for outsiders, they cause confusion. They are acronyms: the alphabet soup that insiders understand but exclude outsiders.

Why is Not Expanding Acronyms an Accessibility Sin?

Consider this sentence:

“The ADA is due for a major overhaul.”

In this sentence, what does ADA mean? Is the acronym referring to the American Dental Association, the American Diabetes Association, the Americans with Disabilities Act or something else? Without knowing what ADA stands for, this sentence is rather vague and meaningless.

Although this example may be considered staged to demonstrate a point, coming across unfamiliar acronyms (and jargon) in blog posts can be jarring and confusing. Readers may not completely understand the remaining content and may feel excluded. Content filled with too many unexplained acronyms may frustrated readers, causing them to click away.

How to Absolve this Sin?

The solution is easy and takes only a few moments: expand all acronyms (or abbreviations) the first time they are used in a post, for example:

“The internationally recognized cornerstone for web accessibility is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 and now the WCAG 2.0. Many guidelines, policies and legal requirements are based on the WCAG.”

A key point to remember is that, even though you may have expanded the acronym in previous posts, readers may enter your blog on any post, making it necessary to expand every acronym the first time it is used in each post.

Have questions? Ask in the comment section below.

For more tips and tricks in creating accessible blogs and content, check out the Blog Accessibility Mastermind.

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3 Responses to Sin #5: Using Acronyms Without First Expanding Them
  1. Aankhen
    February 5, 2011 | 6:30 am

    The acronym & abbr elements in HTML exist specifically for this purpose. Your comment form even includes them in the list of permitted tags. :-) They’re a good way to include the expansion for those who need it without cluttering up the text.

  2. Aankhen
    February 5, 2011 | 6:32 am

    Oddly enough, your theme seems to suppress the browser’s default styling for those elements, meaning that one can’t tell that HTML (in my last comment) is an acronym, for example.

  3. Richard
    February 7, 2011 | 3:13 am

    Most web developers and content authors don’t even think about this one. They might spell out an unusual acronym or an ambiguous one (like your example).

    It can be a tricky call. For example if I use the term HTML, I would generally assume that people either know that it means HyperText Markup Language or just don’t need to know. A good example of where you shouldn’t expand an acronym is when writing a web address e.g. – users really don’t need to know what HTTP stands for.

    Other examples where expanding acronyms may be unneccessary are for ones that are in Common Usage. For example if I was testing a site I woudn’t penalise them for not expading USA or UK , that would be just too picky. It can be difficult to know where to draw the line though. As with most accessibility guidelines, some common sense has to prevail.

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