Names & Abbreviations

healthreform-acronymsApropos of some tweeting I did last night about acronyms, you should know: judges don’t like excessive abbreviations. And when you do things judges don’t like, bad things happen. So don’t use excessive abbreviations.

Every lawyer has read (and maybe written) a brief that contains an “alphabet soup” of acronyms and initialisms—particularly when the case involves government entities. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using acronyms and initialisms (and other abbreviations). Sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes it’s actually smart and effective. But be judicious about it.

(By the way, if you don’t know already, you should learn the difference between abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms. When you explain it at the next cocktail party, everyone will say YSS—as in “you’re so smart.”)

The most obvious reason to avoid too many initialisms, of course, is to avoid confusion. For example, sometimes the initialism you’re using has another meaning in another context. (See YSS. See also WTF.) And sometimes it’s not a risk of multiple meanings, but a risk of simply losing your reader.

I once was asked to help with a petition for rehearing in a case that involved two parties with similar names. Let’s say they were called American Manufacturing Company and American Manufacturing Systems. In the trial court, and even in the initial appellate briefing, both sides had abbreviated the parties as AMC and AMS—and if the risk of confusion wasn’t already obvious, it turned out the appellate court, in its initial opinion, had mistakenly referred to AMC in a paragraph where it clearly meant to refer to AMS.

You don’t want stuff like this to happen. (ICYDK.)

But deeper, better reason to avoid initialisms is that they usually aren’t doing any rhetorical work for you. Nietzsche said:

What things are called is incomparably more important than what they are.

Such is the power of rhetoric and word choice in persuasive writing. If your client’s name is American Manufacturing Company, you lose all the ethos and pathos of that name when you reduce it to “AMC.” You should be elevating and championing your client as “American Manufacturing,” and reducing your opponent to the impotent “AM Systems,” instead of erasing both identities with the confusing “AMC vs. AMS.”

In other words, don’t just blindly avoid acronyms and initialisms because somebody said they can be confusing. Instead, decide whether to avoid them or to use them by thinking strategically about your pronouns, for persuasive purposes. You don’t want to lose the credibility of “NASA” by calling it “the Space Administration,” just because you’re trying to avoid acronyms. But if you represent the KKK—even in an uncontroversial property dispute—you should probably consider coming up with a less inflammatory pronoun for your client (such as “the Owner”).

Oh, and while we’re at it: stop using unnecessary parentheticals to abbreviate the names of parties or other entities. Most likely you do not need to do this:

Appellant Baylor University Medical Center (“Baylor”) respectfully asks the Court to…

Unless you have a situation like the one described above, where multiple parties have similar names, there’s very little chance the court or anyone else will have trouble knowing who you’re referring to if you delete the parenthetical and simply say “Baylor” the next time you refer to the appellant. Trust your reader to figure out that “Baylor” is short for “Baylor University Medical Center.” (But note: this recommendation might not be appropriate in drafting a contract, where it may be necessary to define terms precisely using parentheticals.)

If you want to abbreviate the name of an entity in a way that isn’t completely obvious, you can use the parenthetical—but you don’t necessarily need the quotation marks. They’re optional. So your parenthetical could look like this:

Defendant American Manufacturing Systems (AM Systems) makes three meritless arguments against the injunction…

On the other hand, if you think quotation marks are needed to increase clarity, then go ahead and use them. That’s really the key concern when it comes to parentheticals: be clear. Make your writing easier to understand, and it’ll be more effective.

[A version of this post appeared previously here.]

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