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Red Pen Diaries: Stop Abbreviation Abuse Now!

And now from our friends at Editorial Emergency, a brief rant against abbreviated jargon, from "fail" to "convo": "If you feel like an idiot saying something out loud, don't say it in writing either."

In most digital media — from text messages and tweets to marketing e-blasts and Web pages — brevity is the soul of wit. But I wonder if those using "fail" as a stand-in for "failure" are simply witless.

If you regularly use "fail" instead of "failure," please tell me why. Is it because you think it sounds cool? (It doesn't.) Is it because you're in a hurry? If the latter, how much time do you save in not typing "ure?"

Plenty of other words are getting this shabby treatment, too, particularly in written communication of the digital variety.

There's "install," as in, "Jeez, this install is taking forever." Is the "ation" really such a burden?

Some people apparently think "Are you going to the meet?" is more efficient than "Are you going to the meeting?" They're also the types to use "convo," short for "conversation."

It's abbreviation abuse, plain and simple. And it's spreading.

I was reading something nonprofit-related recently when I came across "devo." Really? That's how you want to refer to "development," the all-important work of raising funds and broadening your reach? Better you should be citing the concept of "de-evolution," which is what the band Devo is named after.

Many of these offenses stem from a reliance on my archenemy, jargon, with the neo-nouns "fail" and "install" emigrating from the technology sector (the fine folks who also brought us "solutions"). While it's true that people adopt the specialized argot of their profession to appear knowledgeable, we also do it to connect with others in our field, to prove that we speak the language, that we're part of the "us," not the "them."

But when we try to communicate with folks outside our sphere, the use of jargon has the opposite effect — it distances you from people who aren't conversant with the lingo; it suggests you don't speak their language. I would argue that even among colleagues, leaning on jargon can separate you from your peers because it's frequently a substitute for more authentic, and thus more meaningful, expression.

A preponderance of jargon also suggests a certain insecurity. If you write an e-mail that says, "The convo we had at last week's meet about the devo department's fail led to today's install," you may need to have a heart-to-heart with yourself: Is your spewing of this terminology a smoke screen for your lack of understanding, your inability to fit in? Are you inadvertently highlighting something you mean to hide?

Or maybe we're just lazy. It doesn't take significantly more effort to type "installation" than it does "install," but it does take more effort to express yourself directly and effectively without falling back on jargon. By making that effort, however, you're much more likely to connect, inspire trust and persuade — all of which are critical in negotiating our professional paths (not to mention building our brands).

Maybe these truncations are merely the ceaseless evolution of English. But maybe they're not. Here's a rule of thumb: If you feel like an idiot saying something out loud — "That meet went on forever"; "I'm so glad we had this convo"; "Our devo people are clueless about marketing" — don't say it in writing either.

So, we've taken to task "fail," "install," "meet," "convo" and "devo" — do you have anything to add? Carp on in the comments below, my friend. And rest assured that at least we've chased "'tude" from the language. I hope.

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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday March 30th 2010, 2:09 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
This just sounds like bitterness from the language police. I stopped really listening at the purely personal assertion that such clipped language "doesn't sound cool". This is something like circular reasoning: if it "doesn't sound cool" to you, of course you wouldn't use it; if it does, you might certainly use it. Neither opinion carries more objective weight than the other, yet this is put forward as material to the argument.

Tuesday March 30th 2010, 3:48 AM
Comment by: Edmund S. (Bronx, NY)
I remember as a teenager I started to talk 'jive' which drove my parents crazy and now my son has started to talk 'hip hop' so now I know, I'm a square...
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 4:10 AM
Comment by: chris P. (tallai Australia)
As a retd dig ( sori Digger) I am used to abbvs. In fact their use was mandatory at times.Looking at my kebe i find !@#$%^&*()_+ esc ctrl PgDn etc etc. These are taken for granted and in daily use.With many grand children who are well educated I am able to understand most of their "tork".
However I am a little concerned how the legal profs will cope.
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 4:11 AM
Comment by: Kim P.

The word fail is not an abbreviation of failure. Check your grammar books.
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 4:23 AM
Comment by: Kim P.

You may need to copy/paste - but this will help you with the word fail.
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 4:39 AM
Comment by: Joel B. (Groton, MA)
My SMS messages are full of abbreviations yet completely understandable. The medium has a lot to do with the use of abbreviations. You should rail on the phone companies for having very short message restrictions and terrible keyboards.
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 9:05 AM
Comment by: Sandra C. (San Diego, CA)
I have always hated "combo" for "combination." It sounds so falsely jaunty. Maybe I'm allergic to it because of a sixth-grade math teacher who used it constantly, when I felt anything but jaunty about math.
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 9:43 AM
Comment by: Suzanne (Asheville, NC)
Hi Simon and Julia, thank you for taking a stand. This isn't a "grammar police" situation, in my opinion. I can't bear it when I see useless abbreviations, especially "convo" for conversation. Convo is closer to "convoy" in my head, which is confusing. It's just lazy, and it makes the person who wrote it sound stupid.
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Some of this was mis-directed, in my opinion.

For example, "install" is the right word in "...this install is taking forever." Nobody in the industry would use "installation" in that context.
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 10:19 AM
Comment by: Giles S.
Better you should...

I guess we all have our special jargon
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 12:02 PM
Comment by: Kimberly B.
I think a lot of the word use choices that are made, such as abbreviations, need to consider the context of the what is being written and its intended audience. In informal communications amongst one's work group, it is okay to take liberties with language - cut off word endings and speak using the exclusive code words of your professional tribe. What is not okay, is using jargon to obscure or exclude others from understanding what is being written.
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 12:05 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I agree with the assertion that the use of these abbreviations (and others) can separate a person from others. I also agree that extended posts using this sort of lingo are sometimes the result of laziness.

But a few of the posts here just support the idea that this is a sort of group oriented type of talk. Yes, as teens we had our special words and phrases, but our writing (I'm in my seventies) wasn't littered with them as the written word is now.

In another post, I referred to a study done by Canadian professors. (And I just recognized the word 'prof' as an abbreviation!)

In this study, it was found that many students entering university were not able to write coherent English. There has to be a written standard that can be understood across age and affinity groups. Separate group writing and conversation is fine within the group, but we need to be together at times.

Furthermore, our use of slang was mainly conversational and did not enter our writing. At least it didn't in mine until I used the word 'scrounge' in a letter home. I didn't realize that it wasn't then a word!

What about 'reno'? That's been used for years and is, I think, now clear.
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 12:17 PM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
Simon and Julia, I agree with you almost completely. Some of the responses seem to be from touchy people. I do use some shortcuts and have to accept a few of the text message cross-over uses or give up all communication with some of my friends. OMG & LOL at all this stuff. I occasionally use 'hood to speak of my neighborhood and I come from a long line of jive talk from jazz folks. I could be an old fogey (I am 73), but there is joy of life with young people creating and recreating language in a process of learning what the world is all about. I prefer to try to keep up as much as I can.

But I believe that you are mostly criticizing jargon in the workplace where such behavior is unprofessional and, again as you say, revealing of ignorance and even worse, of pretentious ignorance. This is not "grammar policing" so much as a plea for reasonable usage in many places where real communication is very important.

Thanks for the thoughts.
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 12:53 PM
Comment by: Rachel V. (Methuen, MA)
Yipes! This seems harsh. I agree that "devo" and "meet" sound uncool (although I have never, ever heard those), but "install" is accurate and "convo" is rarely used in the workplace. Also, "FAIL" is usually used to disapprove of something or if an action has gone wrong (often in an amusing way), not as "failure".
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 4:49 PM
Comment by: Julia R.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Julia here -- I wrote this piece, not Simon. I need to come clean about something. Some of you clearly got this, but my "harsh" languge, including the use of the word "witless," was intended to make a point that a lot of folks missed. I must confess to being somewhat disingenuous in asking readers who might use “fail” why they do it. I'm well aware of the provenance of that use. My point was that “fail” is no longer used exclusively in a humurous context; I’ve actually seen it as a simple “short form” of “failure.” It seems that what (presumably) started with the videogame Blazing Star, then spread to the popular Internet meme and Twitter (the fail whale), has entered common parlance not just in its original, “epic fail” sense but also as a simple abbreviation –- and in no time will undoubtedly be listed as an acceptable variation in the OED!

Check out this fab Slate piece from 2008 on “fail” (, which notes: “Most Internet memes have the lifespan of fruit flies. But there’s evidence to suggest fail is here to stay. For one thing, it’s easier to say than failure … And there’s a proud tradition in English of chopping off the endings of words for convenience.”

Apologies to Dylan Thomas, but I, for one, do not intend to go gentle into that good night.

Very best to you all, and thanks for caring enough to comment.
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 5:04 PM
Comment by: Terri W. (Beaverton, OR)
Bravo to Kimberly B. for her comment on word selection matching “the context of … what is being written and its intended audience.” Yes! A timeless truth of writing: know and write to your audience. If word choice confuses (or even slows down) the reader, the writing is ineffective and maybe even useless.

Julia states this point in the article. It is a good reminder for all writers, even if you don’t agree with the whole article. The quote: “But when we try to communicate with folks outside our sphere, the use of jargon has the opposite effect — it distances you from people who aren't conversant with the lingo; it suggests you don't speak their language.”

As for returning 100 e-mails a day … it doesn’t always equate to efficiency. Read the recent article on MSNBC’s Web site called, “Blunt the e-mail interruption assault.” I found it to be a fascinating article.

Also, those wanting to achieve excellence and effectiveness in their writing will welcome those red-pen moments, which, true, can be painful and “not nice.” I now greatly appreciate those professors and teachers (even the one who almost made me cry in college) who “tormented” me with their edits … and hence prepared me for the future.
Wednesday March 31st 2010, 11:10 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Personally, I would beg English teachers (and others correcting essays) to continue to correct and 'edit'. I shudder to think of drivers going out onto the streets without having to learn the right moves (hard enough as it is). Testing is a part of life, and correcting is what results from the test -- not just in science, but in writing as well.

Whatever colour pen gets attention, use it, gracefully and judiciously -- with appropriate explanation or question.

Sure, if you have the time, it's better to go over each piece of work individually with the student, but that kind of time is rare. That's how it was in the Writing classes I took in university, but not in the lower grades.

I too have a professor to thank!
Wednesday March 31st 2010, 4:47 PM
Comment by: Esteban (pittsburg, CA)
"Fab slate piece"
I love it!
Wednesday March 31st 2010, 6:40 PM
Comment by: elizabeth H. (milford, DE)
I wholeheartedly agree with Julia.
I believe it's really important that we preserve the integrity of our english language. It seems we have lost appreciation for much of it's beauty and complexity, subtlety and richness. It's saddening to see it so misused and abused.
Come on, We can all handle a little scolding now and then, can't we?
Thursday April 1st 2010, 8:58 AM
Comment by: Rachel V. (Methuen, MA)
Julia, this will teach you to attempt disingenuousness! *laugh* You ask, we answer. Sorry you didn't get the ones you were looking for, but when you ask people to carp, you should probably expect all types.

That said, I do agree with you -- to me, "fail" for "failure" will always sound fairly uncool, or at the very least, much too casual for anything other than tongue-in-cheek use. Keep the articles coming! You and Simon always provide food for thought.
Thursday April 1st 2010, 10:50 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
It's interesting to me that a plea to preserve the "integrity of our language" (however THAT might be objectively defined!) is paired with a lament for the loss of appreciation for its "complexity, subtlety and richess". Assuming that "integrity" is defined for this commenter as something like "immutability", what, then, happens to complexity? To richness?

It may be that one problem with this article is that it seems to lump together (or at least encourage the readers to do so) the language as written with that as spoken, and makes little critical distinction among the in-between states. Texting, chatting, emailing, diarying (is that even a word? do you, however, know what I mean?), blogging, flash ads--these each use varying degrees of formality and "correctness" and "in-speak". This article not only fails to be explicit about the language form it's criticizing, but in the very first paragraph, it lets us know it's sheltering under one umbrella many of the newest forms of language use, and applying a single view to them all.

Playing with language is as important an exercise as "preserving its integrity". New words and uses arise out of attempts to say something new, or to fit old language to new situations. Naturally, not all these new uses will survive, but the only reasonable way to determine those that succeed in communicating is to try it out. Seems to me that we should applaud these efforts and allow them to try to prove themselves. If they make it, we've all benefited; if not, we won't even remember them a year later. (Except, perhaps, for those who need to provide "content", itself a relatively new usage of an old word.)

I suppose I'm making a case that language "criminals" are as necessary as are language "police" (it's probably pretty clear which crowd I hang with). It seems to me that the real strength of a language is in its ability to adapt and change, its elasticity, if you will.

Not much is going on in Latin these days, you know.
Saturday April 3rd 2010, 11:25 AM
Comment by: ann S. (phoenix, AZ)
It just dawned on me that this kind of language camae from the old days of the telegraph. Each letter was counted in the cost. So in some cases there is just so much money or space.....
Wednesday April 7th 2010, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
The one that gets on my nerves is "reveal" as a noun when the world to use should be "revelation." If that sounds to religious, what's wrong with "unveiling?"
Wednesday April 7th 2010, 9:54 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Tom: I'm curious about that "should"; reveal has been used as a noun meaning "revelation" or "disclosure" since the 17th century.
Wednesday April 7th 2010, 11:41 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Stan, perhaps it's different in Irish/English usage. The only noun 'reveal' I get is this:

The part of the side of a window or door opening that is between the outer surface of a wall and the window or door frame.
The whole side of such an opening; the jamb.
The framework of a motor vehicle window.

That doesn't seem to fit the context of this article.
Wednesday April 7th 2010, 12:12 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Stan and Jane: I've traced the usage of "reveal" in its modern, media-oriented sense back to 1975, in a description of Allen Funt's show "Candid Camera":

1975 New Times 4 (Jan-Jun) 52 But now the final coup, Allen's trademark -- the "reveal." "Madame, did you know that at this moment you are on nationwide TV?"

See further discussion by Mark Liberman here and Arnold Zwicky here. (And see here for a big list of posts on similar nounings.)
Wednesday April 7th 2010, 1:20 PM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Jane: I don't think the Irish-English usage of reveal is significantly different to that of other English-speaking areas; the historical information I added above comes from the OED and Merriam-Webster.

Ben: Thank you for the links — very interesting!
Tuesday May 25th 2010, 4:20 PM
Comment by: Rachel G.
I'm sorry that the English language is changing in front of your eyes, Simon and Julia, but that is exactly what it's doing and what it has done for centuries. It's hard to embrace it, and some of the abbreviations are rather unclear, but universally accepted abbreviations, such as fail or combo, are going to be used by the general population, whether you like it or not.
Wednesday May 26th 2010, 9:33 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Rachel, I think it's the pace of the change that is sometimes distressing. That and the obvious careless use of it made by some 'celebrity' sorts when commenting on how they played the game, shot the scene or sang the song!

Years ago, of course, we'd not have heard those comments directly.

Remember, some of us were listening to speeches given by Winston Churchill and FDR. Mickey Mantle and Ted Lewis and the rest weren't so often quoted! LOL

And some of us grew up in homes where slang was tolerated with unease. So perhaps we are slower than others to accept the shortcuts or changes in usage.

And then some, like 'reveal' I was just unaware of, though I did watch Allen Funt. What a wonderful show that was! I guess YouTube is the contemparary version of Candid Camera, but it can't hold a shutter to Allen's schemes! More innocent, more refreshing...

But then, that's the opinion of one from another age, too...
Wednesday May 26th 2010, 11:01 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
The idea that slang is a new thing is preposterous, supportable only by a constrained knowledge of the ways of the past.
Wednesday May 26th 2010, 4:23 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Sue, I'm confused by your comment. I think all here realize that slang has always existed -- at least probably so, so long as language has been complex enough to allow for choice of word.

Can you quote what was said to provoke your comment so that we have a reference?

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