Small Caps for Acronyms? LOL!

acronym-soupI was tickled to be featured this week in Wendalyn Nichols’ Copyediting Tip of the Week. This email newsletter is sent out every Monday to subscribers of Copyediting.
Last week, Wendalyn asked readers to weigh in on the topic of whether publishers should continue to set acronyms in small caps. Apparently, this used to be done regularly as a way of signaling to readers that a certain term was an acronym (e.g., RADAR, pronounced “ray-dahr”) as opposed to an initialism (e.g., DOD, pronounced “dee-oh-dee”).
She summarizes her question thusly:

Last week I put the question to you of whether the practice of setting acronyms in small caps to show they should be pronounced as names should be done away with. I gave two reasons for considering this step: (1) the argument that long acronyms look terrible set in full caps is undermined by the fact that some initialisms, which are set in full caps, are longer than some acronyms; and (2) readers are more likely to perceive the small caps as a mistake because they don’t know the reason for setting them that way in the first place.

In her follow-up column this week, she was kind enough to include my two cents on the topic:

  • Setting acronyms is small caps is indeed done so infrequently that, to most people, it probably looks more wrong than right. Enacting the rule thus risks distracting readers, rather than helping them by providing guidance on proper pronunciation.
  • Fussiness of this sort wastes time in the production cycle. It potentially distracts everyone down the line—writers, copyeditors, designers, proofreaders—from more important concerns, such as catching a spelling error or a missing period.
  • This type of change assumes the reader is stupid. In other words, “oh, my poor reader will not understand how to pronounce this term unless I set it in small caps for him/her.” It’s akin to using a sans serif font for the “U” in “U turn”—as though the reader will be totally confused by the little lines on the top of a “U” in a serif font.

Wendalyn, probably wisely, did not include my final comment on this topic: acronym versus intialism? Who the h**l cares?
I know that suggesting copyeditors stop making a certain change “because no one cares” is a potentially dangerous road to go down. What lay reader, in all honesty, really cares whether we switch out a “which” for a “that,” or an “is comprised of” for an “is composed of”?
But my overall philosophy of copyediting is to keep in mind that we shouldn’t make changes just because “we’ve always done it that way.” That instead, we need to be attuned to changes in usage and be willing to change our editorial approach if we determine that a certain rule has become hopelessly passe, clunky, or pointless.
If we don’t do this, we risk being perceived as cranky old obstructionists, slowing down the editorial process and being subservient to rules for the sake of rules — rather than rules for the sake of readability.


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