Watch your abbreviations


By Ian Lewenstein

The CEO KO’d our LOI with his MOU, and the SLA was BS for managing PNL, and the FDD was DOA, and now I’m on a PIP but next week I’m on ETO so WTF.1

If you can decipher this code of letters from a plain-language comic, congratulations. But if you’re not C-3PO, you can probably start to understand why you should limit abbreviations in your legal writing. Used without limits, abbreviations reveal their secret life as an insidious form of jargon, serving as insider shorthand to the detriment of readers unfamiliar with this ABC lingo. Certain abbreviations—specifically, initialisms—are also confusing, distracting, and, as you’ll see, usually unnecessary.

The different types of abbreviations

Abbreviations are split into three different categories: acronyms, initialisms, and contractions. An acronym is read as a single word after taking the initial letters of its underlying phrase. For example, SCOTUS is pronounced as a word, standing for Supreme Court of the United States. While SCOTUS is uppercase, not all acronyms need be; for instance, there’s the lowercase laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and radar (radio detection and ranging).

An initialism, on the other hand, is read as a series of separate letters after taking the initial letters of its underlying phrase: “The ALJ (administrative-law judge) at OAH (Office of Administrative Hearings) filed their decision on the agency’s authority to adopt rules under the APA (Administrative Procedure Act).” Sometimes, an initialism and an acronym fall in love and combine—with the first letter pronounced by itself and the remaining read as a word—such as in IOLTA, standing for Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts. And sometimes you can choose how to pronounce a word such as FAQ: “f-a-q” versus “fack.”

Abbreviations also include contractions such as those found in the Bluebook like App. Ct. or Civ. App; additionally, they include those more-common ones with apostrophes: isn’t, don’t, it’s, etc.

General stylistic principles

Some abbreviations are so well understood or normalized that they breeze right by without forcing us to think. You have the FBI and the CIA. You get your money from an ATM using a PIN. You take the dreaded SAT, ACT, and LSAT. You use a DVD player (well, not anymore). Writers, however, can get tripped up over stylistic issues, so here are some general principles to get you confidently using abbreviations.

Using a period. It’s the Wild Wild West out there, or the WWW as they say. As the lexicographer Bryan Garner states on the period question, “Searching for consistency on this point is futile.”2 While lawyers will turn to the Bluebook for guidance on using a period, more-thorough recommendations can be found in the Chicago Manual of Style or by consulting an abbreviations dictionary (yes, such a thing exists).3 The one caveat in the great period debate is that acronyms shouldn’t have periods because they are pronounced as a word: You wouldn’t write “The P.O.T.U.S. and F.L.O.T.U.S. were mad at S.C.O.T.U.S.”

Capitalization. Initialisms are almost always uppercase even if the underlying phrase isn’t a proper noun (ALJ, for example). While acronyms such as radar or laser are lowercase, usually acronyms are uppercase. And when we look across the pond, we encounter differences between British and American preferences for mixing upper- and lowercase (Britain prefers to mix and match such as in BoE and DMofT—Bank of England and Dundee Museum of Transport, respectively). Additionally, while some publications use small caps, try and avoid doing so—mainly because correctly employing small caps is rare.4 But if you can pull it off, great.

Definite and indefinite article. Should you use a or an before an abbreviation? The topic of many office water-cooler conversations, this question isn’t as confusing as you think. First, acronyms are rarely preceded by an article unless you are using the acronym as an adjective as in “the confounding SCOTUS opinion.”

For an initialism, the answer depends on how you would pronounce it—that is, whether the first syllable takes a vowel (an) or a consonant sound (a). For instance, “He was an FBI informant who secretively was a CIA contractor. Why he bought a DVD player, I have no idea, but he must have gotten his money from an ATM.” Second, using the depends on how you would pronounce the initialism in a sentence: “The ALJ worked for OAH but she was also an expert in the APA. She started at MMB, but then went to work for DHS and the AG before ending up at OAH.” You just have to sound it out.

Redundant abbreviations. Be careful of being redundant with your abbreviations: ATM machine, PIN number, PDF format. In other words, know what your abbreviations mean and refer to them accordingly.

Some dos and don’ts

Now that you know the different categories of abbreviations and their stylistic guidelines, here are some dos and don’ts for using abbreviations in your legal writing.



Spell out the abbreviation on first reference and then put the shortened form in parenthesis immediately after: “the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).” You can also use an appositive construction: “the Administrative Procedure Act, or the APA...”

Use quotes or legalese, or both, in the parenthesis: “the Administrative Procedure Act (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Administrative Procedure Act’).”

Be consistent after abbreviating a term.

Go back and forth between the abbreviation and its spelled-out version: the APA, Administrative Procedure Act, APA, etc. Also, don’t reintroduce an abbreviation a second time, with one exception.

Limit your abbreviations and use a short glossary of abbreviations if needed.

Use so many abbreviations that you need a glossary.

Be careful of using less-common or rarely used abbreviations with more-commonly-known abbreviations.

Try and send a message with your abbreviations:Ass. Prin. should probably beAsst. Prin. or justassistant principal.

Know how to correctly abbreviate geographical terms, addresses, time designations, and scientific terms, if needed.

Guess and make up abbreviations.

Make sure if you first abbreviate in a headnote or footnote to abbreviate again in the body of the text.

Abbreviate a term that appears only once.


Abbreviate normal phrases:peace officersforPOs.


And for the most important don’t: Don’t use abbreviations that speak to only insiders, as these distract and confuse your readers, preventing them from understanding your argument and sometimes even convincing them to stop reading.

Catnip for lawyers

For lawyers, abbreviations appear to be a sort of catnip; Garner has termed this affliction initialese.5 Garner really, really despises initialese: “One of the most irritating types of pedantry in modern writing is the overuse of abbreviations...”6 He goes on to characterize initialese as a “hybrid-English system of hieroglyphs” and as exemplifying a “puerile fascination with the insubordinate trappings of scholarship.” Although he might appear a tad harsh toward these innocent letters, Garner does make a strong case, as we’ll see with several examples of this “puerile fascination.”

Take, for an example, an article7 on federal changes to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, more commonly known as HIPAA (too bad it couldn’t have been made to spell HIPPO). Apparently HIPAA enjoys worldwide fame, as the article’s authors don’t even write out what HIPAA stands for. While assuming that every reader knows what HIPAA stands for may seem an arguably safe assumption in a journal dedicated to lawyers, it’s also probable that not everyone does know; making predictions about a narrow audience is more fraught and risky than you would think.

So the article is off to a bad start with the undefined HIPAA; next, we have the following abbreviations in succession, not all of which are spelled out: HHS, HITECH, PHI, ePHI, EHR, PHA, API, HCO, HCBS, and NPP. A gift basket of PHIs and EHRs to whoever comes up with a great joke using all these initialisms.

All jokes aside, there are several problems with using this many initialisms. First, some of the initialisms are just a letter removed from being mixed up, such as PHI vs. PHA. Second, some of the initialisms are surrounded with redundant quotes when they are first spelled out, so the initialism appears as an afterthought rather than as something necessary for the reader.

But third and most important, it’s confusing and frustrating for the reader to have to wade through an army of letters while also trying to read and understand federal changes to the law. If this army of letters doesn’t result in nightmares of being attacked by life-sized letters, I’m not sure what will.

Overloading on initialisms engenders these nightmares because readers need recognizable characters that they see as capable of acting; this concept is not only intuitive but also based in cognitive psychology.8 For example, we write sentences as follows: the dog chased the cat, not the D chased the C. Or the paralegal chided the associate attorney, not the PL chided the AA.

As the quotation at the beginning of this article shows, initialisms are confusing not only because they are unrecognizable as characters capable of acting but also because they increase the cognitive load for the reader. This cognitive load is only worsened when the reader is trying to understand the arcane nature of federal medical-privacy rules.

Letters aren’t seen as capable of acting, so the reader can’t easily or logically follow the story that is being told. And in the article on HIPAA, there are too many letters and would make even an alphabet-soup can blush.

No doubt that the HIPAA authors used the initialisms to help them write and get pen to paper. The problem, however, is that writers are always beholden to their readers, so what works initially for the writer most times won’t work for the reader.

But if you take the effort to use words and not abbreviations, you’ll see how much better your writing can be and, consequently, how much better you can get your point across.



Two new definitions clarify the scope ofelectronic PHI(ePHI) requests. First, to clarify the scope of information within the purview of individuals’ rights to accessePHI,HHSproposes to expand onHITECH’s definition of “electronic health record” (EHR). The proposed rule provides:

Two new definitions clarify the scope of requests forelectronic protected health information. First, to clarify the scope ofinformation within the purview of individuals’ rightsan individual’s rightto accessthis information, thedepartmentproposes to expand onthe act’sdefinition of electronic health record. The proposed rule provides:


You’ll probably cry foul. There is no way that I can do this! But you can. You’re only being asked to reduce unnecessary abbreviations. As one prominent plain-language lawyer has espoused about the baleful effect of abbreviation overload, “[W]e should not be feverishly creating new ones at every opportunity. And we should certainly not have several different ones operating at once. Give words a chance.”9 Yes, it takes work to use words, but consider another benefit to this work: You’ll have an opportunity to better understand and fine-tune your argument when you use words, not letters.

Here’s another example of unnecessary abbreviations from a law-review article10 that shows how quickly aspiring lawyers develop their trigger-happy instincts for abbreviating:

  • Minneapolis Police Department = MPD
  • Police Accountability Act = PAA
  • Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act = MNPELRA
  • Bureau of Mediation Services = BMS
  • Peace Officer Standards and Training board11 = POST Board
  • Continuing Legal Education = CLE

Pop quiz: How many of the abbreviations are unnecessary? The answer is all of them except CLE, which is an example of an entrenched abbreviation common among lawyers and other professionals. But even in this case, you should still spell out CLE because it’s mentioned only once (see the dos and don’ts). The article also violates other dos and don’ts such as by enclosing an abbreviated term in quotes and reintroducing abbreviations that have already been abbreviated.

Here’s how abbreviations could be avoided (hint: use words):

  • Minneapolis Police Department = the police department
  • Police Accountability Act = Police Accountability Act
  • Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act = labor-relations act12
  • Bureau of Mediation Services = the bureau
  • Peace Officer Standards and Training board = the board
  • Continuing Legal Education = continuing legal education

By using words and identifiable characters, you ease a reader’s comprehension, save them time, and spare them frustration: “Abbreviations are tempting to thoughtless writers because they can save a few keystrokes every time they have to use the term. The writers forget that the few seconds that they add to their own lives come at the cost of many minutes stolen from the lives of their readers.”13 In other words, don’t instinctively reach for abbreviations as if you were eating out of a bag of chips or scarfing popcorn while watching a movie. Focus on the story that you are telling and what characters you need to tell that story.

The dos and don’ts also apply to legal shorthand in which a phrase is shortened for brevity (but not readability). Many minutes were stolen from readers in this all-too-common case opening:

This matter is pending before Administrative Law Judge Jessica A. Palmer-Denig on a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, or in the Alternative, for Summary Disposition (Complainant’s Motion) filed by the Public Interest Legal Foundation (Complainant), and the Secretary’s Motion for Summary Disposition (Respondent’s Motion) filed by the Minnesota Secretary of State (Respondent). The record on the motions closed upon the filing of the parties’ responses on July 22, 2022.14

So many parentheses. Try instead to excise all the shorthand:

This matter is pending before Administrative Law Judge Jessica A. Palmer-Denig on a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, or in the Alternative, for Summary Disposition (Complainant’s Motion) filed by the Public Interest Legal Foundation (Complainant), and the Secretary’s Motion for Summary Disposition (Respondent’s Motion) filed by the Minnesota Secretary of State (Respondent). The record on the motions closed upon the filing of the parties’ responses on July 22, 2022.

• Trust the reader. Trust that the reader can figure out your story without your feeling the need to shorten the parties’ names, which makes the writing unnecessarily turgid and pedantic and again introduces unrecognizable characters (complainant, respondent). And arguably, replacing parties’ names with shorthand is dehumanizing because it takes an individual’s identity and replaces it with a legal prop. Instead, strive to use recognizable characters (foundation, secretary of state, the foundation’s motion, the secretary’s motion).

• Respect the reader. Respect a reader’s time and avoid superfluous abbreviations; here, the opinion generously plops down abbreviations: HAVA, SVRS, DPS, NVRA (the last two are mentioned only twice, both in the same paragraph or footnote). So we get paragraphs such as the following:

Complainant asserts that HAVA and Minnesota law must require Respondent to eliminate duplicate names from the SVRS because the alternative creates a ‘procedural nightmare’ in which Complainant would be required to bring claims against all 87 Minnesota counties to enforce HAVA compliance.15

Yes, there’s a “procedural nightmare,” and it involves us trying to decipher these abbreviations and shorthand while trying to understand federal voting law. As the great William Zinsser wrote, “You just can’t assume that people know what you think any boob knows, or that they still remember what has once been explained to them.”16 Zinsser was discussing science and technical writing, but he stresses that this dedication to and respect for your reader apply to all types of writing. While we may have understood what SVRS stands for 10 pages ago, that doesn’t guarantee that we’ll remember what it means the second, or even third, time that we encounter it.

On a side note, abbreviating can be acceptable in internal memos or office emails (though not always for newcomers). But for public-facing communications, strive for clarity over purported brevity; as seen in these examples,17 there are many convincing reasons to limit your abbreviations.

Parting advice

Think of writing a brief, opinion, client letter, and other legal documents as telling a story with relatable characters (that is, people, not abbreviated abstractions). As Zinsser says, “It’s the principle of leading a reader who knows nothing, step by step, to a grasp of the subject.”18 Remember, if your goal is to convince a judge that your argument should prevail, you can’t do that if the judge is furiously flipping back and forth through your writing like a mad person, trying to separate the EHRs from the PAAs and the SVRSs.

And if not a judge, other readers may just stop reading if they stumble upon something like this: “Preparing and approving RFXs, NDAs, MSAs, SOWs, SLAs, KPls, DPAs, and POs.”19 What the heck? With endless abbreviations like these, a writer’s prose easily slinks into the realm of abstractitis20 and obscurity, leaving the reader—and most likely the writer, too—without the faintest idea of what is being said.

So be as judicious in your abbreviations as you would be—or should be—in other areas of legal writing: Don’t overcite authority, don’t overquote, and don’t overabbreviate. 

Note: The following abbreviations cited as examples in this article were not harmed during the writing of the article: HIPAA, HHS, HITECH, PHI, ePHI, EHR, PHA, API, HCO, HCBS, NPP, MPD, PAA, MNPELRA, BMS, POST, CLE, HAVA, SVRS, DPS, NVRA, RFXs, NDAs, MSAs, SOWs, SLAs, KPls, DPAs, and POs. 

IAN LEWENSTEIN has worked for the Minnesota Legislature in the Office of the Revisor of Statutes and for several state agencies, helping write clear regulations in plain language. He serves on the board of the Center for Plain Language and has a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a paralegal certificate from Hamline University.


Plain Language Cartoon, Writers Write (7/23/2012), https://www.writerswrite.co.za/plain-language-cartoon-71872/ .

2 Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern English Usage 2 (4th ed. 2016).

3 See, e.g., Dean Stahl and Karen Kerchelich, Abbreviations Dictionary (10th ed. 2001).

4 Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers 104-05 (2nd ed. 2015).

5 Garner, supra at 3.

6 Id.

7 Gregory J. Myers, David. W. Asp & Develyn J. Mistriotti, Major Changes Coming to HIPAA Privacy Rules in 2022, Bench & Bar of Minnesota, July 2022, at 30-34.

8 Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (1990); see also Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style (2014).

9 Joseph Kimble, Lifting the Fog of Legalese 155 (2006); see also Joseph Kimble, Seeing through Legalese 170 (2017).

10 Kate Fredrickson, Should the Call for Systemic Change Start with Police Grievance Arbitration?, 48 Mitchell Hamline Law 624 (2022).

11 Capitalization error: board should be uppercased as part of the agency’s name.

12 The initialism is used only twice, and in the same paragraph.

13 Pinker, supra at 64.

14 Office of Administrative Hearings, In the Matter of the HAVA Elections Complaint of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, OAH 71-3500-38362, 7/29/2022, at 1.

15 Id. at 16.

16 William Zinsser, On Writing Well 134 (3rd ed. 1988).

17 The examples in this article weren’t singled out; rather, they appeared out of the author’s normal reading, only solidifying how sadly common it is for misused abbreviations to sit in the pantheon of other legal-writing maladies.

18 Zinsser, supra at 134.

19 This is a real example from a résumé.

20 Garner, supra at 10.