WTF? Undefined Acronyms – One of the Top 10 Mistakes Survey Writers Make

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a series of posts on common Survey writing mistakes. Click here to see the previous item and here for the next item!




Undefined acronyms aren’t just the bane of parents of teenagers. TLA’s (three letter acronyms) – not to mention 4LA’s, 5LA’s, 6LA’s, etc. – are everywhere these days and if you’re not careful they can totally screw up your Survey. We have become so accustomed to using them in both our careers (industry jargon anyone?) and everyday life that we often miss the fact that others misinterpret their meaning… or even have no idea what we’re talking about! Clearly this can create substantial problems in Surveys, where precise language is paramount.

For example, did you know that there are over THREE HUNDRED distinct uses of the acronym “ABC”? If you ask a Survey respondent about their favorite show on ABC you had better specify whether you mean the American Broadcasting Company, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, or one of at least two separate Associated Broadcasting Companies operating in India and the Philippines. Just as the same words mean different things to different people (not to mention in different contexts) so too do acronyms. I recently reviewed a Survey with this question:

On a scale of 1 to 10 on which 1 represents “the worst” and 10 represents “the best,” how would you rate the performance of your company’s CIO compared with the performance of the CIOs of other companies in your industry?

The author was trying to learn about trends in information technology across a variety of industries, and intended for “CIO” to mean “Chief Information Officer.” Unfortunately, she neglected the fact that the acronym CIO has over 40 different meanings, at least a dozen of which are related to job titles or corporate departments! She wasn’t interested in respondents’ opinions of Chief Investment Officers in the asset management industry or Combat Intelligence Officers in the military, but if she had left in her undefined acronyms then that is just what she would have received.

As with most Survey mistakes, there is a simple solution to the problems created by undefined acronyms: DEFINE THEM! Always write out your acronyms completely so there can be no ambiguity or confusion about their meaning. Better yet, provide both the definition AND the acronym itself so you fully cover the bases. Prior to deploying the Survey, we rewrote the question above as follows and completely avoided irrelevant opinions on Chief Integrity Officers:

On a scale of 1 to 10 on which 1 represents “the worst” and 10 represents “the best,” how would you rate the performance of your company’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) compared with the performance of the Chief Information Officers of other companies in your industry?


By |2017-09-05T01:48:12+00:00August 8th, 2014|News, Tips & Tricks, Uncategorized|1 Comment

About the Author:

Wyatt Nordstrom is the co-founder and CEO of Maven. When he's not mapping the world's expertise he likes to row, brew beer, and make BBQ.

One Comment

  1. Simon August 18, 2014 at 10:21 am - Reply

    WFT is a midweek weekend! LMFAO!

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