The RNC: Abbreviations, Acronyms and Parentheses

Republican ElephantAlways searching for grammar lessons, I caught this online report about the Republican candidates and the presidential debates. It’s an example of how not to use an abbreviation or an acronym.

RNC Chair Reince Priebus sent a letter to the chairman of NBC on behalf of the Republican National Committee. The excerpt that follows shows how Priebus put the committee’s abbreviation (RNC) in parentheses as though the reader, the head of NBC, might not recognize it on second mention.

The chairman of NBC might not recognize the abbreviation RNC in that context? Really?

Different style guides make different recommendations. Let’s first look at the Priebus’ letter (bolding is mine):

I write to inform you that pending further discussion between the Republican National Committee (RNC) and our presidential campaigns, we are suspending the partnership with NBC News for the Republican primary debate at the University of Houston on February 26, 2016. The RNC’s sole role in the primary debate process is to ensure that our candidates are given a full and fair opportunity to lay out their vision for America’s future.

As with so many decisions we make about writing, content and how it is presented depends on our audience.

I have to believe that the chairman of NBC — and anyone else having enough interest to read the news report — probably knows what RNC stands for. It didn’t bother me that Preibus wrote out the committee’s full name the first time it appeared, but it hardly was necessary to follow the full name with (RNC).

This parentheses thing isn’t simply a personal preference. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, my preferred resource, parentheses are jarring to readers and should be avoided when possible.

AP also suggests that if an abbreviation or acronym isn’t well known, avoid using it.

This viewpoint from is consistent with AP style:

Use abbreviations and acronyms only when they will help your readers by making written text simpler and less cumbersome. Whenever possible, avoid following the name of an organization, project or program with an abbreviation or acronym in parentheses or set off by dashes: Endangered Species Act (ESA).

If you do fully write out the name of an entity, there are other ways to represent it on second mention besides using its abbreviation:

  • Using the example above, the Endangered Species Act, rather than being referred to as ESA on second reference, could be “the act.”
  • The Department of Energy, rather than being referred to as DOE when mentioned a second time, could be “the department.”

Writing and editing site, notes:

As with so many things in language, it’s not wrong to put terms in parentheses. Rather, it’s clunky.

The site also cautions writers to pay attention to the danger of an acronym taking an entirely new direction. The National Automobile Dealers Association, or NADA, ends up as the Spanish word for nothing.

That example brought to mind The Committee to Re-elect the President, a fund-raising organization for President Nixon’s 1972 campaign. It originally was abbreviated CRP but was nicknamed CREEP during the Watergate scandal.

Rather than reporting, “The CREEP met four hours before the hearing,” simply saying, “Members of the committee met four hours before the hearing” would have been fine on second reference.

“And then there’s the poor Wisconsin Tourism Federation, which was forced to change its name to the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin because of the popularization of WTF. Alas, most people who used WTF weren’t thinking about Wisconsin tourism,” points out.

Lesson learned: Use abbreviations and acronyms sparingly and with caution, and do your best to avoid putting them in parentheses.

A quick tip as I close: Be sure you know the difference between an abbreviation and an acronym.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)