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Is there a better way to introduce acronyms through a dialogue? One way of doing it, is to mention what the acronym stands for at the beginning and then use the acronym afterward, but that's a bit weird and unnatural, because people won't say "National Aeronautics and Space Administration" they will say "NASA", so what's the alternative way of doing this?

For example:

"The National Aeronautics and Space Administration decided to hire several contractors for the design of the module, but NASA haven't yet given all of the specifications yet, so we will wait a month before beginning the design. In the meantime, you can contact NASA for additional details on the specifications that they gave us."

  • The context for this will probably make a difference. What kind of work are you writing for? – linksassin Sep 6 '19 at 0:42
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    Your example sounds like a letter to someone. It's not quite journalism or an article, but it's not dialogue either. But you've tagged this creative-writing. If it's nonfiction, what you wrote is fine except you'd add NASA in parentheses after the first usage. In creative writing, there are different approaches. – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 6 '19 at 1:41
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In this particular case, don't, because the term NASA is more well known than its expansion. Sometimes acronyms evolve into words, such as scuba and radar. Once they become words, use them as words. As a matter of usage, NASA is no longer an acronym but a word (like FBI or CIA). Use it as such. As a general rule of thumb, if the acronym is better known than its expansion, just use the acronym.

If you are writing fiction and you are referring to a real world acronym that your characters would all know, just use the acronym. If the reader does not know what it means, that is what Google is for. Keep the use in your text natural.

If it is a made up acronym, think twice about whether you really want a made up acronym in your story. And if you decide you really do, find a way to introduce it in narrative before your characters use it in dialogue.

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In fiction, there are several possibilities:

  • Have the narrator explain the acronym outside of actual dialogue, assuming that the narrator is written in a way to express their thoughts.
  • Have a character who doesn't know the acronym ask what is being talked about; the acronym can then be reasonably explained within the story.
  • Don't mention the acronym, but talk around it instead. For instance, in the case of NASA, say the space program.

However, in the context of a story where everybody knows what NASA is, it wouldn't be normal to explain it. In fact, in the specific case of NASA, most people do know what it is, so even explaining it in the story wouldn't be required for reader comprehension.

But there are normally always ways of coming up with a creative solution to problems like this. The specific contexts of some stories will also provide other possibilities.


If it's nonfiction, there are various style guides that explain how it can be done. Perhaps the most common is to write out the full name on first use, following by the acronym in parentheses, and then use the acronym after that.

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I agree with Mark Baker. If it is a real world acronym everybody knows, just use it. For real-world acronyms few people know, or made up acronyms, a common ploy used in fiction is to use the acronym in front of a novice character, that then tries to find out what it is. Perhaps using a search-engine, or asking a friend.

Or an instructor writes it on a whiteboard and asks the class what it stands for.

Captain Bell wrote on the board, I S B A D. "What does this stands for?"

Marcus, in the front row, raised his hand, and spoke before being called on. "Interstellar Battle And Defense".

Show off, Timothy thought. He would have told us.

Or, a novice asks a friend, that happens to know, or an official from an organization introduces themselves to civilians, and informs them of the meaning, as part of their explanation for why they are there.

In general, every acronym you know, you learned the meaning of it from somewhere, somehow. From a website, from a friend, on TV or radio, in a book, from your parents, etc. If you don't think an acronym is commonly known by strangers on the street, explain it in the book, devise a scene in which a character learns what it means like we naturally learn new words or acronyms, so the reader "overhears" that and learns "naturally" too.

If you have particularly acronym-laden speech, the best way is to either ignore it, or engineer some sort of argument between two experts in the dialogue.

"I think its the F A S, no way its S P C."

"What are you smokin'? No anti-particle source can do this, it has to be the spin parser."

So we get the impression the acronyms do mean something, even though that is incomplete. But engineers, mathematicians, medical doctors, physicists (and many others) speak in jargon all the time, both to save time and be precise. For a great deal of acronym-laden jargon, treat it like characters speaking in a foreign language conveying foreign concepts with no simple translation (which it is). Namely, the best a novice can do is get a summary of what is being said, there is no quick way to convey all the meaning.

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Although it's intended for journalistic writing, the Associated Press style guide has a useful list of acronyms that don't need to be explained to readers. NASA is on the list. The guide says to use the acronym without explanation but to use the full name someplace within the (news) story. In fiction, I'd say the writer can judge whether that's even necessary.

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No one mentioned footnotes yet, so I will just toss this in, for completeness sake. You can have your narrator or characters speak in acronyms, but decipher them in the footnotes. There can also be a list of acronyms, as in scientific publications. What is appropriate for your format, is up to your judgement.

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