Call the FBI, CIA, and PD, ASAP!: Acronyms and Initialisms
By Scott Mose
Pity the poor judges presiding over District of Columbia courts, where all those government cases are filed with so many acronyms that the court's Handbook of Practice and Internal Procedures has "strongly urged" (you know what that means) practitioners to avoid them. Sometimes, the avalanche of acronyms and initialisms in court filings are more than a body can take:
Here, both parties abandoned any attempt to write in plain English, instead abbreviating every conceivable agency and statute involved, familiar or not, and littering their briefs with references to "SNF," "HLW," "NWF," "NWPA," and "BRC"--shorthand for "spent nuclear fuel," "high-level radioactive waste," the "Nuclear Waste Fund," the "Nuclear Waste Policy Act," and the "Blue Ribbon Commission."
Nat'l Ass'n of Regulatory Util. Comm'rs v. U.S. Dep't of Energy, 680 F.3d 819, 820 n.1 (D.C. Cir. 2012).
The judiciary's ire is not limited to the District of Columbia, though. A judge in the Ninth Circuit got a little sarcastic with some environmental lawyers for their overuse of acronyms and initialisms:
Environmental lawyers ordinarily use acronyms and cite statutes by section numbers in the enactment rather than by section numbers in the United States Code. This opinion is written in ordinary English. Specialists might find this opinion more accessible if we explain that it concerns a NEPA challenge to a ROD of the BLM concluding that a FEIS adequately evaluated CBM
development under the Powder River Resource Area RMP. The district court held the FEIS inadequate and partially enjoined approval of APDs until BLM completed a SEIS.
N. Cheyenne Tribe v. Norton, 503 F.3d 836, 839 n.1 (9th Cir. 2007).
Even the late United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia intensely disliked them and counseled lawyers to avoid them. See Antonin Scalia & Bryan Garner, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges 120 (2009).
I sympathize with those courts because acronyms and initialisms are killing me. Some briefs overflow with them, sometimes without even defining the terms, as if everyone knows what "NWPA" means. And acronyms mean different things to different people. To me, "SEC" means "Southeastern Conference." (SEC! SEC! SEC!) (Sorry. Sometimes I can't control myself.) To other people, it means "Securities and Exchange Commission." To my astronaut friends, it means "Space Environment Center." We need to get a handle on these things.
What are acronyms and initialisms?
Acronyms are made from the initial letters or parts of a phrase or compound term, and they are pronounced as a single word. See Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage 19 (2d ed. 1995). ERISA (Employee Retirement
Income Security Act) NASA (National Aeronautics
and Space Administration) ASAP (as soon as possible) HUD (Department of Housing
and Urban Development) radar (radio detection and
ranging) laser (light amplification by stim-
ulated emission of radiation)
On the other hand, although initialisms are also made from the initial letters or parts of a phrase or compound term, they are pronounced letter by letter. Id. PD (public defender) FBI (Federal Bureau of Investi-
gation) FYI (for your information) PR (public relations)
Note that some initialisms, even though they are not pronounced as one word, may not be pronounced strictly letter by letter. AAA (American Automobile As-
sociation) (may be pronounced "Triple A") NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) (may be pronounced "N C `double A'")
Should periods be placed after the letters in acronyms and initialisms?
For acronyms, periods obviously should not be used since they are pronounced as a single word. For initialisms, the trend is not to use periods if capital letters are used, but to use periods if the initialism is written in lower case. Id. IRAC (issue, rule, analysis, con-
clusion) LCD (liquid crystal display) a.m. (ante meridiem) and p.m.
(post meridiem) m.p.h. (miles per hour)
What does The Bluebook say? In Rule 6.1, The Bluebook also
allows acronyms and initialisms of widely recognized entities, such as AARP, CBS, NAACP, and NLRB, to be used without periods in text, case
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names, and as institutional authors except we may not omit periods when abbreviations are used in reporter names, in names of codes, or courts. FCC v. WIS Television Inc., 442 U.S.
77, 78 (2001).
Remember that under Bluebook Rule 10.2.2, "United States" and other geographical units should never be abbreviated when it is a party in a case name, but they may be abbreviated as part of another party's name. Carmody v. United States South Carolina v. U.S. Dep't of
Justice S.C. Elec. & Gas Co. v. Smith
If acronyms and initialisms are so irritating to judges and almost everyone else, should we never use them?
In general, avoid using them, but sometimes they have a place. For example, almost everyone in the legal profession will understand what is meant by FBI and writing out "Federal Bureau of Investiga-
tion" is unnecessary. Judge Raymond Kethledge, who serves on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, believes that this is the only exception to the no-acronym rule: "The basic rule here is simple: Don't use an acronym whose meaning the reader does not already know." Hon. Raymond M. Kethledge, "A Judge Lays Down the Law on Writing Appellate Briefs," GP SOLO Magazine, American Bar Association, Vol. 32, No. 5, at 24, 26 (Sept.Oct. 2015) (emphasis in original) (also stating that "[r]eading a brief should not be a short term memory test.").
Despite Judge Kethlege's narrow rule, acronyms and initialisms are helpful to the reader when used as short names to parties or when lengthy terms will be used respectively throughout the brief. For example, if the name of a business or other entity (such as "Stuckey National Petroleum Inc.") will appear many times in a document, using "SNPI"--after first defining the term--will make the brief more concise and easier to follow.
However, using initials for the
name of your own business client may de-humanize the company, which is not a good idea. In this (and every) situation, determine if you can give a short name to a party without using initials. For example, instead of "SNPI," name the party something that is concise and easy to remember, such as "Stuckey National," "Stuckey Petroleum," or "Stuckey Inc."
Finally, to avoid subjecting judges and the rest of us to a "short term memory test," a better idea is to give a short name that is more easily understood and remembered than an acronym or initialism. The Sherman Antitrust Act of
1890 ("the Antitrust Act") The University of South Caroli-
na ("the University")
If you decide to use initialisms and acronyms, even though you will probably irritate everyone in the case, follow some basic rules.
First, read the court's rules and preferences and make sure the court has not already strongly suggested or prohibited acronyms and initialisms.
Second, do not use them unless you will use the term repeatedly (at least three times in the document).
Third, in any case, use them sparingly.
Fourth, if using them, the first time the party or term appears, provide the full name, followed by the short name you will use for that name. Plaintiff Stuckey National
Petroleum Inc. ("SNPI") moves under Rule 12(b)(6) for an order dismissing this case. This motion is based, in large part, on the "Nuclear Waste Policy Act" ("NWPA").
58 SC Lawyer
IMO u might h8 acronyms and initialisms, but I can do what I want to in informal writing. SMH.
Not really. If acronyms irritate judges, they probably irritate everybody. Besides, those informal e-mails between friends sometimes end up as Exhibit A of a trial brief or in a response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Do your best writing all the time.