January/February 2012
The Final Say

We're being acronymed and jargoned to death

By Paul Gruhn, P.E.

I realize the importance of acronyms and jargon. Both are shortcuts used to increase the efficiency of communications among experts. I am perfectly happy having the doctors and nurses in an emergency room using all the acronyms and jargon they want while they are patching me together. I really do not need to understand what they are saying, and it is in my best interest that they communicate as quickly and clearly as possible. Within the automation industry, we certainly have our own fair share of acronyms and jargon. However, business communications are meant to clarify, not obfuscate, so we should be careful about their use.

Most acronyms consist of three letters (e.g., PHA - Process Hazards Analysis). These are often jokingly referred to as TLAs - Three Letter Acronyms. Some acronyms are based on four letters (e.g., BPCS - Basic Process Control System). You might think these would be FLAs - Four Letter Acronyms - but you would be wrong. They're simply ETLAs - Extended Three Letter Acronyms. Some are based on five letters (e.g., HAZOP - HAZard and OPerability). Most five letter acronyms are based on a very selective choice of letters to make them roll off the tongue more easily. These are not FLAs either - Five Letter Acronyms. They are EETLAs - Enhanced Extended Three Letter Acronyms.

The following are real acronyms taken from real documents. The additional comments on each, however, are my own.

  • STEP - Sequential Timed Events Plotting. And I just thought steps were a part of stairs.
  • CRIOP - Crisis Intervention and OPerability analysis. Another example of a selective choice of letters for an EETLA. After all, CIAOA would just sound like you are saying goodbye to someone in Italian.
  • ICDE - International Common Cause Data Exchange. Isn't one of the Cs missing?

Can you believe some people actually use two letter acronyms? Where does one draw the line? Spelling out two words does not take up that much space! Perhaps we should call those TTLAs for Truncated Three Letter Acronyms.

  • SO - Spurious Operation. So in case of a SO, we should do what?
  • PC - Premature Closure. This sounds like a personal problem. Considering how the entire world uses that acronym for personal computer, I do not think this one will get much traction.
  • UL - Utility Loss. I think Underwriter Laboratories might have a problem with this one.

Here is an actual sentence, although it is from a technical paper intended for a technical audience so I should not be too harsh. "If a SO does not lead to a spurious trip, for example, a single SIS element raising an alarm in a 2oo3 configuration, we may define the SO-failure as SD since the failure is detected before the SIF is executed." You got all that, right? Five acronyms in a single sentence, with one of them even repeated. SO is Spurious Operation, SIS is Safety Instrumented System, 2oo3 is Two out of Three (TooT wouldn't be very clear, would it?), SD is Safe Detected, and SIF is Safety Instrumented Function.

I have got a couple of new ones. How about SKIP for Safety Kernel Interrupt Procedure and LOU for Loss Of Utilities? SKIP to my LOU could now take on a whole new meaning!

For a hilarious treatment of buzzwords and jargon, check out some of the links and videos after Googling "retroencabulator and turboencabulator." Here is a partial excerpt. … "The original machine had a base-plate of prefabulated amulite, surmounted by a malleable logarithmic casing in such a way that the two spurving bearings were in a direct line with the pentametric fan. The main winding was of the normal lotus-o-delta type placed in panendermic semi-boloid slots in the stator, every seventh conductor being connected by a nonreversible trem'e pipe to the differential girdlespring on the 'up' end of the grammeters."

How many sales and marketing presentations have you been subjected to that were similar to that? Might you be guilty of creating any?

What the heck, if you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance ...


Paul Gruhn, P.E., (paulg@icshou.com) works for ICS Triplex, a Rockwell Company. He is an ISA Fellow, standards committee member, book author, course developer/instructor, as well as a former Section, Division and Department leader for ISA. The views expressed here are his own and not those of his employer.