Editing Tips: What Is Alphabet Soup?

Editing Tips: What Is Alphabet Soup?

  • Apr 18, 2021
  • 4 min read

A dedicated proofreader will have an appetite for all kinds of text. But if there’s one literary meal that no editor or proofreader likes to see, it’s alphabet soup.

What is alphabet soup in a writing context, though? And why is it a problem? In this post, we explain the basics and what to do if you encounter it in a document.

What Is Alphabet Soup?

When most people hear the term “alphabet soup,” they probably imagine alphabet-shaped pasta. In a proofreading context, though, this term refers to a pile-up of acronyms and initialisms that make text difficult to follow. Take the following, for instance:

The ATM handler, which is housed in the EFEM, will take a wafer from LPMA or LPMB to LLA or LLB, which is then picked by the TM robot and placed into one of the PMs.

As long as the author has clearly introduced each abbreviation here, none would pose a problem by itself. However, using several abbreviations in succession makes the text potentially confusing, especially for anyone unfamiliar with the subject matter.

This sense of “alphabet soup” was popularized by an American politician called Al Smith, who said that the number of three-letter agency names used by the US Government made it look like “absent-minded professors” were playing “anagrams with alphabet soup.”

Nowadays, people use it more broadly to refer to any writing dense with abbreviations. Academic and business documents are particularly prone to this. As such, it is something to be aware of when working for clients in these areas.

What to Do with Alphabet Soup when Proofreading

When proofreading, you should always make sure that abbreviations are defined clearly and used consistently (in line with your client’s chosen style guide, where applicable).

But you might also need to look out for passages like the one above, where a pile-up of acronyms or initialisms could be problematic. Clarity is the key factor here, so keep the intended purpose and audience of the document in mind.

In very technical writing, for instance, you might expect to see more acronyms and initialisms. In these documents, using a few abbreviations in succession isn’t necessarily a problem. But if you find yourself having to check a list of abbreviations several times in a single passage – or the document is aimed at a non-technical audience – you might need to either:

  • Make edits to clarify the passage. If permitted, this might involve replacing some abbreviations with the full terms. Or you could simply split a long sentence containing several acronyms into two or more shorter sentences. This will mean that the abbreviations are further apart and the text reads more smoothly.
  • Add a comment to the document noting that the pile-up of abbreviations is difficult to follow, prompting your client to check the clarity of the passage.

As usual, though, you should only make direct changes to a document if your brief allows such edits and you’re confident you know what your client is trying to say.

Becoming A Proofreader

To learn more about proofreading, from alphabet soup to marking up a PDF, try our Becoming A Proofreader course. You can even sign up for a free trial today.

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