Tax, ambulances, and why you shouldn’t use acronyms at work

Government loves abbreviations and acronyms. Within 3 days of working at a big government agency in Newcastle, I heard literally hundreds of the devils. They ranged from the fairly well understood — HMRC, API — to the completely baffling to someone new to that world — AMLS, ETMP.

Working on a tax service, I kept hearing one acronym in particular: “nee-nor”. It’s the sound an ambulance makes.

“We need a field for the nee-nor.” “How many users know their own nee-nor?” “We need a nee-nor alternative for other nationalities.”

Have you guessed what a nee-nor is?

It’s a national insurance number.

‘National insurance number’ somehow turns into the acronym ‘NINO’, which when said aloud by a geordie becomes, of course, “nee-nor’.

‘National insurance number’ really doesn’t need to be abbreviated. Sure, it coverts 8 syllables to 2, but at the expense of comprehension. Even if speed was the only reason to abbreviate — and it very rarely is — then the 0.5 second saving is obliterated the moment some poor soul has to interrupt to ask what it means.

That’s if they ask at all, of course. When you’re working in a new place and every conversation and email is liberally seasoned with acronyms, having to stop and ask what they all mean makes you feel a little bit stupid.

Feeling stupid for asking is not so bad when you’re new, but the real problem is for people who never asked, or perhaps did and forgot, and feel like it’s too late to ask now. Those are the people who will just nod through a meeting, fail to address issues raised in emails, and repeat the acronyms they hear because they’re expected to. Obscure acronyms are the enemy of clear communication.

Not all acronyms and abbreviations are evil, of course. Reading a British Broadcasting Corporation story about a light amplifications by stimulated emission of radiation on North Atlantic Treaty Organisation self-contained underwater breathing apparatus divers would be far more tedious than reading a BBC story about a lasers on NATO scuba divers.

If you need more encouragement to consciously avoid acronyms, and reassurance that doing so will actually make you come across as smarter and more well-informed, here’s what Elon Musk has to say on the matter:

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the difference between an acronym and an abbreviation…

abbreviations are short versions of words, used in written language (“St” for “street”, “KM” for “kilometre”). Acronyms are abbreviations which become words in their own right, which can be spoken as words (“gif”) or spelled out in letters (“FAQ”).