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Acronyms and abbreviations


From: Jukka Korpela
Date: Mar 28, 2002 12:10AM

Holly Marie wrote:

> [2]How is the Acronym tag handled by readers?

This appears to be a separate topic, so I've changed the Subject line (from
"Separating links").

> <acronym title="Web Accessibliity Initiative">WAI</a>

The meaning of <acronym> is unclear, and this probably even relates to
browser wars. In English, according to WWWebster, an acronym is "a word (as
NATO, radar, or snafu) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of
the successive parts or major parts of a compound term". But apparently many
people have seen <acronym> as suitable markup for various initialisms.

The accessibility implication is that an author should be _prepared_ to
having the contents of his <acronym> elements treated as _words_, e.g. as
regards to reading them. (But he shouldn't _rely_ on such things, of
course.) So the markup above suggest that "WAI" be read as "way", I suppose.

> Are all the
> readers giving the expansions on the acronyms or would it be best to
> write any sentence, like this ?
> Visit the Web Accessibility Initiative[WAI] pages for more
> information and tips.

We should certainly give explicit expansions for abbreviations and explicit
explanations for the origins of acronyms, if they are necessary or at least
very useful to users.

The title attributes are for "advisory titles" only. For hints that might or
might not be seen or heard. Apparently, they are basically for human
consumption. Any use by programs for purposes such as indexing or speech
synthesis is secondary. I think we'll get into trouble if we think that any
title attribute needs to act as specifying the way an an abbreviation is to
be read in speech synthesis. It is quite common that a user would benefit
from having an optional access to the expansion of an abbreviation like
"HTML" or "IETF" - but who would like to listen to speech where each
occurrence of such abbreviations is read as expanded?

On the practical side, expansions for abbreviations are often useful, except
perhaps for the most common ones. Such expansions can help e.g. elderly
people who have learned what an abbreviation means but have problems in
recollecting it. But explanations for acronyms are much less relevant and
can be confusing. Do people need to know what "radar" comes from, when the
word "radar" is used in some text? Does "NATO" need to be expanded?

(Recently I asked my ten-year old daughter to read a text I had written, so
that I could estimate its understandability. She asked me what "Euroopan
unioni" ("European union" in Finnish) means - but she had no difficulty
later in the text where I had used the abbreviation "EU". It happens that
abbreviations are better known that the expressions they come from - not to
mention similar phenomena with acronyms.)

Jukka Korpela
TIEKE Tietoyhteiskunnan kehitt