Creating an acronym

We’ve seen all the many ways that acronyms, initialisms, and other abbreviations can be constructed, written, and pronounced, and the reasons they are used. Let’s now look at how they are created, as well as how to create your own.

The ones that appear in academic writing are created in several different ways. Some are developed as standards for a field of research by academic bodies. These are often based on what is already in common use, with new and similar terms added as needed. If there were several competing styles of notation or abbreviation previously in use, then the academic body will pick one preferred style. This ensures that every researcher agree can on their meaning, without ambiguity or error. For example, the International Committee for Weights and Measures devised the International System of Units, or SI units (after the French, Le Système International d’Unités), determining officially accepted initialisms for all metric units, in addition to defining their values.

Other acronyms and initialisms are popularized by researchers in the field, usually according to which is easiest to say and has the clearest meaning. For example, the superconducting quantum interference device (a very sensitive magnetometer, which wasn’t named in the first paper to present the concept) can be made into the initialism ‘SQID’, with four syllables (one for each letter: ‘ess, cue, eye, dee’). In English, the letter ‘q’ is always followed by a ‘u’, and is always followed by a vowel like ‘i’, so it is natural for readers to mentally insert a ‘u’ here. This ‘u’ could be the second letter of ‘quantum’. Thus, we have the acronym ‘SQUID’ with only one syllable (pronounced ‘skwid’). This is quicker and easier to say, and its similarity to a familiar animal, the squid, makes it easy to remember. Thus, many more papers use ‘SQUID’ than ‘SQID’.

Like the SQUID, a number of concepts might not be given an acronym or initialism or even a name in the first paper acknowledged to have developed them. Instead, they may acquire an acronym or initialism later, when another writer needs to create one. In my own research in computational physics, I gave the existing quantum wave propagator (for the mathematical modeling of quantum wave-functions) the initialism ‘QWP’, as a counterpart to the already known initialism ‘AWP’ for the acoustic wave propagator. At this time, however, no other researcher has used it. It’s too soon and the body of research too small to say if it will be widely used by others. However, with the publication of this book, the number of references to ‘QWP’ will rise.

However, most of the time, researchers will create their own acronyms and initialisms for the concepts they propose or develop themselves. These may begin as a shorthand in research, note-taking, or coding, before being employed in a paper or thesis. Others may be created during the writing of the paper or thesis to make the writing process simpler, to make it easier to read, or simply for the sake of brevity or conciseness.

Therefore, you’re more than welcome to create your own acronyms and initialisms, whether for an existing term or a new one in your paper. However, it’s worth considering a few points first.

First, is there already an acronym or initialism for the term? For an existing term, you may find another researcher has already created an acronym or initialism for it. There may even be one commonly used in the field; it could appear in a journal’s list of accepted abbreviations or be preferred by an academic body or respected institution. Most likely, for a simple set of initials, the acronym or initialism will be the same, but complex abbreviations could be different. Creating alternate names for things can make the topic very ambiguous. Do a literature review or online search to see if it’s already been named. For example, a quick search online for “quantum wave propagator” shows that it has only rarely been referred to, and no other source has called it ‘QWP’.

Second, can it be confused with other terms? If the new acronym or initialism is the same as or very similar to another acronym or initialism, especially one that is well known or very common in the field, then this will also be ambiguous. A reader may wonder if the new acronym or initialism is in error, especially if it’s not explained to them. It may be necessary to adjust the new acronym or initialism to make it more different, by rephrasing the original statement or using other letters, not just the initials. Switching upper-case to lower-case might be sufficient in some cases, but only if it’s appropriate for the notation. For example, a search online shows that “QWP” is also used for the Qaumi Watan Party of Pakistan, the Quality Working Party of the European Union for assessment of medicines, and the abbreviation ‘quoted with permission’, among others. These obviously won’t be an issue in the fields of computational physics or quantum computation. However, the quarter-wave plate for producing circularly polarized light is commonly initialized as ‘QWP’. Fortunately, that wasn’t an issue in my research, but this could be a problem for QWP-based computational modeling of a quantum-analog QWP, as you can see. If that case, it might be better to use only one of these initialisms or use an alternative for the quarter-wave plate: ‘1/4WP’ or ‘1/4wp’ (which are hybrid acronyms).

Third, is it an effective acronym or initialism? A good acronym or initialism should generally be easy to write, say, or read; be shorter than the full term; and still have a clear meaning. However, acronyms and initialisms all have different purposes, and one meant to be typed might not be as easy to say as one meant to be read. For example, in the URL (uniform resource locator, a little-known meaning of a common initialism) for a website, ‘www’ is an initialism for ‘World Wide Web’. However, ‘World Wide Web’ is only three syllables, but ‘www’ (‘double-u, double-u, double-u’) is nine syllables and is much less easy or natural to say. This is an example of an initialism that is more effective when typed out than read aloud. This is because it is intended to make website addresses easier to type. However, it is memorable and easy to recall. In my own research, I named some complicated derivative functions DPDT, DVXDT, and DVYDT (for derivatives of p, vx, and vy with respect to t), which worked well in the algorithms and computer code, but in the thesis they look a bit ugly and can be easily confused with each other. Fortunately, these were only used for some brief derivation.

Choosing different acronyms

Above, I mentioned terms that have multiple different acronyms or initialisms and how multiple versions may be created. It is not uncommon for this to occur: different authors may have created the different acronyms and initialisms independently, not knowing of other research introducing a different term (especially before online research became common). For example, for the quarter-wave plate, one author may have thought ‘QWP’ was a sufficient initialism, but another may have wished to emphasize the ‘quarter’, and so created ‘1/4WP’. One may have preferred the upper-case, ‘1/4WP’, and another the lower-case, ‘1/4wp’. Sometimes, a new acronym or initialism is created and supersedes another that is less effective, like ‘SQID’ and ‘SQUID’. In some cases, an acronym or initialism appears to grow by incorporating another letter from an accompanying word. For example, the Mental Adjustment to Cancer Scale is conventionally abbreviated to ‘MAC Scale’ (emphasizing that this is a scale), but has sometimes been written as simply ‘MACS’.

Using different acronyms or initialisms for the same term can be problematic. If a reader only encounters one, such as ‘SQID’, and looks it up in online research, they may miss research that uses ‘SQUID’. Alternatively, a researcher familiar with the common term ‘SQUID’ might not understand what is meant by ‘SQID’ if they come across it in a paper. It’s also possible for the same concept to have different names, and these may even produce the same or different acronyms or initialisms. For example, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), a disorder affecting the nervous system, can also be called chronic relapsing polyneuropathy (CRP). Furthermore, CIDP can also be called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (also CIDP). The latter form, with the ‘radiculo-’ prefix, illustrates to the expert that it affects the nerve roots, but this will be ambiguous to non-experts, perhaps suggesting a completely different condition. These very different names not only make research more difficult or increase ambiguity, but also increase confusion for doctors and patients. Therefore, variations in terminology and in acronyms and initialisms increase the difficulty of research and cause ambiguity. Using the same acronym or initialism consistently will reduce the potential for ambiguity so that everyone can understand the meaning, and it will maximize the chances that a paper can be found in online research.

On the other hand, as we have seen, there are also benefits to having different acronyms and initialisms. There are only so many letters, numbers, and permutations of these to go around, and there is bound to be overlap in some fields, as with the QWP example above. Variations in acronyms and initialisms can be used to emphasize different concepts. Having alternative acronyms and initialisms gives a writer more flexibility and options, provided they are used sensibly and with good reason.

Therefore, in the literature, you may encounter a number of different possible acronyms and initialisms or other abbreviations for a single term. There are several ways to respond to this. First, you may choose to introduce both of the common abbreviations. For example, in this sentence we introduce two:

“The wave is phase-shifted using a half-wave plate (HWP, or 1/2wp).”

Thereafter, we can use ‘HWP’ or ‘1/2wp’ as we prefer. In this way, the reader is informed of both possible terms, this paper may appear in a search for either term, and the writer has the option of using whichever term suits their paper. For example,

“The wave-function is circularly polarized using a quarter-wave plate (1/4wp, also known as a QWP). To account for the 1/4wp, we adjust the QWP (i.e., quantum wave propagator) like so:”

The choice of terms can be clarified in detail:

“The wave-function is circularly polarized using a quarter-wave plate (commonly QWP, but in this paper, 1/4wp). To account for the 1/4wp, we adjust the QWP (i.e., quantum wave propagator) like so:”

Otherwise, you can simply choose the term that best suits your paper and minimize the additional effort:

“The wave-function is circularly polarized using a quarter-wave plate (1/4wp). To account for the 1/4wp, we adjust the QWP like so:”

If either term works for your paper or thesis, and there is no ambiguity to consider, then you may simply use either term. The one you are most familiar with is probably the one preferred in your specific field, so this is a good one to pick. Otherwise, consider searching for the term online and picking the most commonly used, so the most potential readers will know it. For example, in the Google Scholar search engine, “quarter-wave plate” and “QWP” together produce around 7260 search results, while “quarter-wave plate” and “1/4wp” together produce only 26 results, showing “1/4wp” might be a very rare or little-known term. Therefore, if there is no ambiguity, we can say simply:

“The light wave is circularly polarized using a quarter-wave plate (QWP).”

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