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Data Standards: Abbreviations – is Terse Worse?

by Jodee Hale-Schmid

July 26, 2010

Authored by Peter Dahl, Senior Consultant, Utopia, Inc.

Ofttimes we are forced to squeeze as much information into a small space as we can manage. Many or most computer systems limit the characters available for describing something and that forces one into the SMS mindset of using acronyms or abbreviations to get concepts across quickly.

While it can be amusing in the SMS world, in the world of data that is seldom the case. One needs to very carefully control the use of acronyms and abbreviations. In an SMS, one is communicating with a known entity on the other end, and available to explain that OMG was not “Old Man Goldfarb”. In data, the person who created a description is rarely around to explain that – in this case, at least – ABS meant acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (plastic) and not Antilock Braking System. Depending on the context, ABS could be an abbreviation for a muscle group, or for “absolute”, or various acronyms such as the Australian Broadcasting System; Asset Backed Securities; or … well, you get the picture.

Alth ough context can often help us discern which acronym or abbreviation is intended to be conveyed, one must question the relative value of saving a letter or two. My rule of thumb is that a common and generic acronym should always be used when it is the norm – PSI jumps to mind. Non-generic or industry specific acronyms should be avoided unless one is absolutely certain the description will remain in-house or at least in-industry.

Using the theorem that we have very little time and space to gain the reader’s attention and understanding, one must ensure that we strive for readability … and not try to impress with how much we can cram into the tiniest space!

BRG OUTBD SKF A123-BX  is a nice terse descriptor. A practitioner familiar with the rotating equipment class can probably quickly discern “bearing”, “outboard” and the manufacturer and part number. How about the accountant trying to do some forensics, or that order desk clerk who’s just started today?

Always keep in mind that your audience may not be who you intended it to be; may not be as educated in your specific taxonomy as you are. Make sure you balance terseness with readability. If you do have to use abbreviations or acronyms, you certainly want to make sure that you have them documented and the list available.

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Scott Wallask

9/25/2013 8:46:19 PM

Useful reminder in here. To me, this is similar to various PINS, whoops, personal identification numbers that we all have to remember -- our brain can only remember so much before we mix things up. Your points seemed very relevant for social media like Twitter, where you have 140 characters per post. Abbreviations run rampant on Twitter.