26 November, 2011
In 1999, The Economist started to get worried about the proliferation of acronyms, particularly TLAs (three-letter acronyms).
The Economist would like to draw attention to a new shortage: of acronyms and abbreviations. So great is the demand in a world where new organisations spring up almost daily, and firms are increasingly known only by strings of initials, that there are simply not enough to go round….
The nasty truth is that there are only 17,576 different permutations of three letters. That is not enough, when a multi-national organisation such as the ECB requires no fewer than five sets of abbreviations in the languages of the EU. Add one more letter and the permutations number almost 457,000. Yet even this does not solve the dilemma. Is the CBOT the Chicago Board of Trade or the Central Bank of Turkey?
This is a clear market failure. In the market for cabbages or computers, prices would rise, encouraging greater supply or choking off demand. But the supply of abbreviations is fixed—and the price is stuck at zero. Demand cannot be satisfied. Yet multiple use of an abbreviation only creates confusion. The solution is simple. A new organisation is needed to tax and control the proliferation of initials. It might be called AAAAAA (the Association for the Alleviation of Absurd Acronyms and Asinine Abbreviations).
This article prompted a reply which struck a chord.
SIR—I am writing to complain about your misuse of one particular acronym. AAAAAA is already allocated to the Association for the Abolition of Appalling Arbitrary Application of Apostrophe’s, of which I am an activist.
NICK KAY Derby
And that was in 1999, before the use of redundant apostrophes in plural nouns (the Greengrocer’s Apostrophe) became as prevalent as it is today. Not to mention the new and horrific variant, the use of an apostrophe in the third person present tense of a verb, which I flagged here, here and here.
Since 1999, we have seen the establishment of The Apostrophe Protection Society, a small step towards sanity and integrity in written English. Ans in 2009, there was a fascinating article in the Daily Telegraph on 29th August: ”Councils issue crib sheets to prevent grammatical howlers on signs”. Here is a flavour:
Council staff are being issued with an “idiot’s guide” on how to use apostrophes and other punctuation marks correctly in a bid to stem their misuse in street signs and official notices. Local authorities around the country have now resorted to issuing GCSE-style crib sheets to their staff in a bid to raise standards of grammar in their organisations. Guidance for staff at Salford council states: “Do not assume that if you don’t know whether to use an apostrophe, then most of your readers won’t either. Many of your readers will notice, and they will infer that you did not learn to write correctly. If a reader notices that you have used incorrect grammar, you will instantly lose credibility.”
I couldn’t agree more.