EPA? BOD? WWTP? MLSS? Where Do We Draw the Line on Acronyms?

For editors, part of the job is knowing when to use the short form and when to spell things out. TBH, sometimes we can use readers’ advice.

Acronyms are funny things. On one side, they’re a useful shorthand: Writing BOD beats writing “biochemical oxygen demand” every time that parameter is mentioned. On the other hand, too many acronyms create clutter and confusion.

The big issue for a magazine editor is where to draw the line between using an acronym or not. Spelling out terms that every reader knows (or should) insults their intelligence. But to use an acronym that is less universally understood is to leave some readers in the dark.

For example, anyone in a water profession knows what EPA stands for. But what about NACWA? Or Central States WEA? In those last two cases, we’ve tended to spell out “National Association of Clean Water Agencies” and “Water Environment Association” the first time they appear. Do we need to? What about WEF (which we spell out) and AWWA (which we don’t)?

As for state regulatory agencies, is it enough to say DEP and DEC? Or should we spell out “Department of Environmental Protection” and “Department of Environmental Conservation”?

Dealing with names

Sometimes we choose not to use acronyms, even though we believe readers know them, just because they’re, well, sort of ugly. For example, we spell out “wastewater treatment plant” instead of using WWTP; for shorthand, we refer to “the plant” or “the facility.” It’s the same on the drinking water side: We don’t use WTP.

FWIW, we also tend (with limited exceptions) to not use acronyms for long names of water authorities or districts. For example, we’ll spell out “Any City Public Utilities Authority” the first time it’s mentioned in a story, but after that we’ll use “the authority” or “the utility” instead of the unsightly and possibly confusing ACPUA.

Then there’s industry terminology. We assume (I hope correctly) that any clean-water operator knows BOD, COD and TSS and that any drinking water operator knows TOC and NTU. But we also have to make allowances for our readers who are newer to the profession.

Being selective

So, should we use the acronyms MLSS, WAS and RAS? Or spell out “mixed liquor suspended solids,” “waste activated sludge” and “return activated sludge”? When the topic is disinfection, we always say UV instead of “ultraviolet.” But we spell out “dissolved oxygen,” at least on the first mention, instead of just using DO. Does that seem appropriate to you?

Do the vast majority of readers understand TMDL (total maximum daily loading) and MCL (maximum contaminant level)? What about the various treatment technologies and processes? Is BNR good enough, or do we need “biological nutrient removal” on the first mention? MBR or “membrane bioreactor”? DAF or “dissolved air flotation”?

I guess by now you get the point. If you look across the water industry, you can find literally several pages of acronyms. IMHO, it’s best to use acronyms selectively — enough so that we show familiarity with the industry and respect for readers’ knowledge, but not enough to create blizzards of capital letters and leave some readers wondering what they just read.

It’s a balancing act, and in that spirit, I would certainly welcome your comments on acronyms and how we use them. Send your thoughts to editor@tpomag.com. I hope to get enough of them to justify an interesting follow-up to this column.

BTW, I leave to you to decipher IDK, TBH, FWIW and IMHO — and BTW, for that matter. After all, I wouldn’t want to insult your intelligence.


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