Acronym or Not? Sometimes a Word is Just a Word

We have surrounded ourselves with three-letter acronyms—words made out of the initials of some three-word expression. RAM is random-access memory. CAD is computer-aided design. In American English, we usually set these acronyms in capitals to make it clear that they stand for longer expressions.

But not every little word with only three letters is an acronym. Sometimes it’s just a word. From a review of a digital camera:

Shutter Release LAG is the amount of time it takes to take the shot after autofocus.

“Lag” is not an acronym—it isn’t made up from the initials of anything. It’s just a word meaning “slowness” or “delay.”

English is full of these little three-letter words—cap, box, bit—and there’s a strong tendency, especially in technical text that’s already pockmarked with abbreviations, for writers to set them in capitals as if they were acronyms.

The cure for this tendency is to insist on knowing the meaning of every acronym you write. That will have the added advantage of making your writing clearer in other ways as well. If you don’t know what an acronym means, you really shouldn’t be writing about it as if you understood it, and you’re going to trip yourself—or your readers—eventually.

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“Advisor” or “Adviser”?

Pick one and stick with it. It’s that simple. “Adviser” is more common than “advisor,” but both are common, and either is correct.

If you have a house style guide that specifies one of the spellings, use that one.

If you are writing about someone whose job title includes “Advisor” or “Adviser,” use the spelling that person’s office uses, even in preference to your house style.

One Word or Two?

Do you write “login” or “log in”? “Shutdown” or “shut down”? “Payoff” or “pay off”?

The answer is that both forms are right, but in different places.

If you’re using one of these terms as a verb, then it’s two words:

How do I log in as a different user?

If you’re using it as a noun or an adjective, it’s one word:

This widget keeps track of user logins.

That’s the fourth failed login attempt in the last hour.

Here’s a paragraph that gets the distinction exactly backwards:

Wrong example: Three years after announcing the acquisition, the company has announced they will shutdown the service on April 30, 2014. The shut down means all mobile apps will cease to function and all of the hosted videos will no longer be available.

“They will shutdown” should be “they will shut down,” and “The shut down means” should be “The shutdown means”:

Corrected: Three years after announcing the acquisition, the company has announced they will shut down the service on April 30, 2014. The shutdown means all mobile apps will cease to function and all of the hosted videos will no longer be available.

Some style guides will have you use a hyphen instead of writing the term as one word. The same rules still apply:

How do I log in as a different user?

This widget keeps track of user log-ins.

That’s the fourth failed log-in attempt in the last hour.

Why bother making this distinction? Because it transcribes the distinction we automatically make in speech. When we say “they will shut down service,” we pronounce “shut down” as two words, with approximately equal accents. When we say “The shutdown means all mobile apps will cease to function,” we pronounce “shutdown” as one word, with the accent on the first syllable. This is a meaningful and helpful distinction in speech, and your writing should preserve those helpful distinctions whenever it’s possible to do so.