After being humiliated in front of the House Oversight Committee and the American people for not knowing a basic housing finance term last week, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Ben Carson bought cookies.
Rep. Katie Porter (D., Calif.) had been asking him about “an REO” — housing parlance for “real estate owned” property, owned by a lender after foreclosure — something that his agency deals with a lot. But Carson — a smart guy whose area of expertise happens to be in neurosurgery, not housing — thought she was asking him about Oreos. So within hours (and without ever actually answering her question), he sent a package of Double Stufs to the gentlelady from California.
Coverage of Carson’s gaffe — and Carson himself — repeatedly referred to the “acronym” that the secretary bungled. But this is wrong; an acronym might have been easier to handle. Carson was ensnared by an initialism — acronyms’ cousins, and often trickier. And while his troublesome ignorance doesn’t portend well for the country’s housing policy, abbreviations — written or spoken — often make for poor language usage.
Though most use acronym and initialism interchangeably, they’re often governed by wildly different punctuation rules. Acronyms can be sounded out as full words, like HUD (Carson’s agency), NATO, or UNICEF. Initialisms, on the other hand, get sounded out letter by letter: UFO, DVD, REO.
Even the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act is a preposterous acronym for the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. In times of bellicose fearmongering and paranoid hypernationalism, acronyms can get out of control. So we usually just write Patriot.
Both initialisms and acronyms are relatively new. The word initialism dates to 1899, while acronym came about in just 1943 — though the Germans had Akronyms in the 1920s. (Who knew Germans were interested in shortening words?) So we’ve had even less time than usual to standardize their punctuation: caps or no caps? Periods or no periods? In his Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner writes: “Searching for consistency on this point is futile.”
The New York Times Style Guide spends a whole page on abbreviations, preferring periods for initialisms (F.B.I., C.I.A.), no periods for acronyms (AIDS, SALT), and only the first letter capitalized if it’s five or more letters (Unesco, Alcoa). They’re in the minority on this last point, but it’s a smart rule. All those capital letters are distracting to the eye, like with the USA PATRIOT Act, in which the shouty all-caps distracted Americans from the fact that the law stripmined their civil rights.
Even the Times lacks internal consistency, especially for internet terms: It uses BTW and LOL and lowercases the much more confusing tl;dr (“too long; didn’t read”). But the Times isn’t known for being ahead of the times when it comes to the internet. It was just three years ago this week that it officially decided to lowercase the word internet, finally acknowledging that the internet is not a physical place.
Here’s the thing, though: While we should all be worried that the HUD secretary doesn’t know a basic housing finance term, Carson’s not wrong to complain about too many abbreviations in government. Before last week, most people who don’t work with or for HUD didn’t know what REOs were either. In any writing, the ensuing alphabet soup inhibits understanding and is straight-up exclusionary: It telegraphs that if you don’t know the acronyms or initialisms, you’re not the intended audience. You’re boxed out.
Unless that box has cookies in it, that’s never a good look.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. That’s every other week, not twice a week, friends. Send comments, questions and headline cases to email@example.com.