ACRONYMS AND INITIALISMS – HOW TO AVOID ALPHABET SOUP
(Posted August 14, 2017) The Fourth Circuit today hands down four published opinions. Court observers will know that that’s a lot for a single day. I decided to check them out to see if there’s anything my readers might find particularly important. I began with the first decision on the web page, M.L. v. Dr. Jack Smith. It raises an important and interesting issue.
M.L. is an Orthodox Jewish boy with Down syndrome. His parents asked the local school board in Maryland to afford him a free appropriate public education, and the system agreed to do that. But the parents took issue with the appropriateness of the education plan, since it was too general in an important respect: It wouldn’t teach the boy the tenets of his religion and Jewish culture.
The parents noted that school should prepare a child for the environment in which he will live, and they asserted that Orthodox Jews “do not and will not participate in the non-Orthodox community.” They wanted something much more attuned to Judaism. Perhaps sensing an Establishment Clause problem, the school system refused, leading the parties to an eventual hearing before an administrative law judge.
So far this appeared to me to be an interesting issue, and I conceived of writing and posting fairly normal analysis of it. And then I got to this sentence on page 7, at which point my reading, and my analysis plans, came to a screeching halt:
Ultimately, the ALJ found the IEP proposed by MCPS provided M.L. with a FAPE under the IDEA.
¡¡Madre de Dios!! A sentence like that calls for an essay all its own.
Let’s start with the basics. Most of the alphabet soup in that sentence comprises initialisms. An initialism looks just like the more familiar acronym, but the former is pronounced as individual letters, while the latter is pronounced as its own word. IRS, UCLA, and NAACP are initialisms; NATO, OPEC and NASA are some of the better-known acronyms.
Initialisms and acronyms are often helpful when they’re readily familiar to the reader. They save time and space, and help make writing breezier. But when a writer uses them to stand for more arcane matters, a sentence can come to a jarring halt. You know, like the one I quote above.
By this point you’re probably expecting me to launch into a criticism of the author of today’s opinion – who shall remain nameless, but his initials are Judge Steve Agee – for writing this sentence. Not at all; in his context, it’s entirely appropriate. His honor takes the time to define each term earlier in the opinion, so the reader can always go back and refresh a memory that can’t recall what one of the terms means.
But you should never write a sentence like that in your work. Never, ever, ever; at least on the assumption that you’re writing to persuade someone. That’s especially true with appellate briefs, when you’re writing to persuade a person who has limited time to read what you have to say. An appellate brief should be user-friendly, and require the minimum effort from the “consumer.”
Why the difference? Because Judge Agee isn’t writing to persuade anyone. The court’s purpose in handing down a published opinion is to provide guidance for future litigants and courts. Those folks all have the luxury of time to “translate” the abbreviated versions into whole words. In his context, this writing is perfectly acceptable.
You may be wondering what all of those abbreviations stand for. I’ll insert them in full into a version of the sentence, so that it makes sense to a reader who doesn’t know the playing field – though it will, of course, be much longer:
Ultimately, the administrative law judge found the individualized education program proposed by Montgomery County Public Schools provided M.L. with a free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Even so, if I were writing a sentence like this in a document designed to persuade a busy reader, I wouldn’t write it quite like this. On the assumption that, like Judge Agee’s opinion, I’ve referred to the abbreviated matters previously, I’d probably phrase it something like this:
Ultimately, the judge found that the school system’s proposed program provided the student with the Act’s “free appropriate public education.”
That’s only three more words than the original version, but it’s in ordinary English and its meaning is unmistakable.
In case you’re wondering about the appeal, the Fourth Circuit panel votes unanimously to affirm. It holds that the proposed program would give the student the same kind of education that other students get. The court finds it unnecessary to delve into Establishment Clause issues, leaving those for another day and a more suitable procedural vehicle.