Keeping Your Acronyms in Order

I’ve written about acronyms here and there, but occasionally I get a master’s-class-level experience that must be shared. For the past two weeks, in between family get togethers, I’ve been working on a rather hefty proposal for a customer (in case you’re wondering how I missed posting last week). This large proposal naturally included dozens–maybe hundreds–of acronyms. Even working in the space business as I do, I can still be surprised by the different ways those little mixes of alphabet soup can vex me.

This being a government proposal, it included large technical, management, and proposal volumes and a sizable number of attachments with no page limitations (I think the largest one I reviewed was 450+ pages). In addition to proofreading, each attachment had its own collection of acronyms specific to it. Given my long familiarity with them, I volunteered to be keeper of the acronym tables. I should have known better.

Standards Vary

Some folks include ampersands in their acronyms, some do not. For example, is it GNC or GN&C for guidance, navigation, and control? Is it SEI or SE&I for systems engineering and integration? Is it SMA or S&MA for safety and mission assurance?

And then there’s the font problem. In chemical formulae, numbers are usually in subscript. Or are they?

Then there are the graphics: acronym formats should match the body text, yes? Not being the graphics guy, I had to flag any graphics that didn’t match the rest of the document…I’m certain the graphic designer(s) cursed my name when they saw my markups.

Putting Things in Order

Then we get to the big task: making the full list of acronyms. Assuming you include punctuation marks and numbers and even upper- and lower-case letters, how do you alphabetize those?

For example, how would you alphabetize the following items?

m^2 (square meters), M (million),  m/s (meters per second), μm (micrometers), m/s^2 (meters per second squared),  M&S (modeling and simulation), m (meters), mm (millimeters)?

I had a system for dealing with such variations within a single letter, based on what I’d seen before on other aerospace proposals.

  • Single letters come first
    • Lower-case, then upper case
  • Single letters plus numbers
  • Letters with punctuation, then alphabetized by what came after the punctuation
  • Everything after that alphabetized as usual


  • How do you alphabetize punctuation?
  • And where do Greek letters figure into all this?

While I’m not certain, I believe punctuation marks have been put in order of complexity:
-, /, +, &, #, *

In other lines of work, there are rules for governing long lists of acronyms. Some of those systems ignore the punctuation and just focus on the letters. That means that m/s would show up on a list between MR (microwave radiometer) and mT (metric ton).

That still leaves numerals and Greek letters.

In my mind, even if the Greek letter has a Roman-letter equivalent, it makes sense to separate them into their own section. So, for your consolidated list:

  • Acronyms beginning with numbers (2-DOF, 3-DOF, 6-DOF, etc.) go first
  • Next, Greek symbols, mathematical operators, or acronyms beginning with Greek letters (α, ΔV, μm, etc.)
  • Next, Roman (U.S. English standard) letters (AI&T, BDA, CAD, etc.)

This is a starting point to establishing some law and order for a task that becomes more and more complicated the longer the document gets and the more concepts we shorten into acronyms. Remember when acronyms were supposed to make our lives easier? Yeah, me neither.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to Keeping Your Acronyms in Order

  1. John M says:

    Something I do a lot, is I make a CIR (Common Information Repository) for acronyms, separated into tagged regions in Asciidoc.

    Then, when I need an acronym, I use the include directive to a tagged region to get the specific acronym I need.

    I keep that CIR (list of acronyms) up to date, and they’re up to date everywhere. Keeps ’em consistent too. This is useful for Warnings, Cautions, MSDS, all sorts of stuff. S1000D has a standardized list of CIRs that it uses for its XML composition, as a reference.

    Pertinent docs are here

    Let’s do an example.

    Example `procedure.adoc`

    //Asciidoc procedure begins
    . Do a thing
    . Use the `source` switch to ensure that the power is not set to
    . Do another thing

    Example `acroterm.adoc`

    // tag::AC[]
    AC (Alternating Current)
    // end::AC[]

    Now when I run `procedure.adoc` I get the following (HTML, PDF, ePub, etc)

    1. Do a thing

    2. Use the source switch to ensure that the power is not set to AC (Alternating Current)

    3. Do another thing

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