Occasionally, I pass over a question merely because I don't understand an abbreviation or acronym. I wonder if the instructions should encourage the definition of these things in the body of the question.

Sometimes acronyms are well known, QFT and SHM are examples. Others are less well known, or perhaps known to people in particular geographic regions, or graduates of certain schools. An example I saw recently is "SM". Even after reading the question and having some understanding that I was out of my league on that one (and quickly eliminating "Statistical Mechanics"), I couldn't figure out SM. Finally Standard Model came to mind, and I'm guessing that that's the correct meaning. Even if that's the correct meaning, it's still certainly the first time I've ever seen that abbreviation. Another recent example is "IVP", for which I fully understood the question but still don't understand the abbreviation. And some things are known by different names: KVL to some is the loop rule to others.

And then there is the case where the abbreviation is well-known to those practiced in the art, in which case it doesn't matter at all if I don't understand the question. In any event, in all the above cases, I'm annoyed that the original poster (OP) couldn't be bothered to be more clear.

Is this worth a mention in the help/instructions?

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2 Answers 2


Abbreviations and acronyms should be explained, especially if in the title. Avoid abbreviations in titles, such as, e.g., TDR, BGK, GTO, EFE, etc. Spell them out instead (as editors have later done in some of the above examples).

Believe it or not, but the most important part of the Phys.SE community is actually not the questioners nor the answerers but the readers. The readers are what keeps this site alive. If the only persons who read a post is the asker and the answerers, this site would not survive. In fact, it is likely what killed e.g. TP.SE: No readers.

Moreover, by making the title incomprehensible, a reader browsing the front page is forced to click the question to read the main body, which defeats the purpose of having a title in the first place.

Also the Phys.SE community has some pretty smart users around, who might be able to answer, even if they are not from exactly the same subfield. So as an asker, why shoot yourself in the foot by unnecessarily limit your potential answerers?

  • $\begingroup$ Those are beautiful examples, and thanks for editing the OPs (Original Posts :-) ) TDR especially hits home for me: I spent two years using a TDR machine, but the abbreviation still didn't ring a bell from the original title. $\endgroup$
    – garyp
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 2:27
  • $\begingroup$ For searching purposes it is essential to have at least once - preferably in the title - the acronym written out in full. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2019 at 12:48

I would look at it like giving a technical presentation to experts in my field (because this site is, afterall, a place to ask questions from experts in the field of the question). So if I stood up in a front of a room of my peers and said "Here is the CFL number for my simulation," nobody would think twice about it and know exactly what I meant. The janitor walking down the hall who overheard it may not know what that means, but I don't care -- that's not the intended target.

So it's the same thing here. If somebody posts a question like "When X happens and we get the ASLKJYF effect, is that right?" -- I don't care if I know what that means if it's not my field. But if somebody posts a question with acronyms and terms I have never seen before in a question about fluid dynamics, I will take a quick search to make sure it's not something I just don't know and if a quick search reveals nothing, I'll ask for clarification. This happens often with people saying "In a paper I read, the authors say f(x) = 10 but I don't know how they got it" and I have to go back and ask for which paper and which authors if it's not something commonplace.

Since we are not really supposed to be a general audience site but we are supposed to be a site for technical questions in an area to get answered by experts in that same area, if an acronym is common and known amongst experts, no further explanation should be required. If I see an acronym in a field I don't know, I don't mind that it's there because I don't know it. If I see one I don't know in my own field and I look it up and can't immediately understand what it means, I'll ask for details of where it comes from.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What about acronyms in question titles? $\endgroup$
    – innisfree
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 20:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @innisfree I don't see why that would be any different than in the body. The tags are right under the title so it's easy to see if it's in my field or not. $\endgroup$
    – tpg2114
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 21:02
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly. Stopping to explain every common acronym that is already understood by anyone capable of answering the question gives an air of amateurism that might give the experts pause. $\endgroup$
    – user10851
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 22:10
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ And one can always ask in a comment "I'm not an expert. Can you tell me what ASLKJYF stands for?" This is subtly different from "Not everyone is an expert, and you should pander to the lowest common denominator, so you should explain ASLKJYF as though no one knows what it is." $\endgroup$
    – user10851
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisWhite Although I much prefer the "I haven't heard this terminology before, can you point me to a paper that uses it?" I've gone through some really interesting rabbit holes tracing citations that way. $\endgroup$
    – tpg2114
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 22:18
  • $\begingroup$ tpg and @ChrisWhite - So, here it is - I'm not an expert. Can you tell me what ASLKJYF stands for? :P $\endgroup$
    – 299792458
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 4:48

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