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Some initial space notes

Jonathan Amos | 12:20 UK time, Wednesday, 15 July 2009

When you've been in the BBC as long as I have, you rise to the lofty position where you get to deal with complaints. So I thought I'd start this blog by heading off the single most common complaint about the BBC's space coverage: the way we write the acronyms for the US and European space agencies in lower-case letters - "Nasa" and "Esa".

If I'd had a pound coin for every time someone wrote in to say, "It's 'NASA' and 'ESA', you dummies", I could have gathered together enough cash to start my own space programme.

It's a style thing. The BBC only uses upper-case for the acronyms in which each individual letter is sounded, as in, err, "BBC". It's supposed to make pages with lots of acronyms look less "bossy", and it gives the reader an idea of how to pronounce ones they've never encountered before.

I didn't make this rule, but I do follow it. It has some logic to it.

As with all "rules", there are exceptions. Take for example the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System used by US. It's a network of satellites in the sky that other spacecraft use to communicate among each other and with the ground. Some people say it "Tee-dress", but for us to write it as "Tdrss", or even "TDrss", frankly looks bizarre. So you'll only ever see me write it "TDRSS".

Like I said, there is some logic to the rule.


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  • 1. At 8:34pm on 15 Jul 2009, Disco Dad wrote:

    Yes, but what if an acronym spells an actual word? Eg (some space related examples for you):
    - Egret: Energetic Gamma Ray Experiment Telescope
    - Emu: Extravehicular Mobility Unit
    - Near: Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous
    - Pam: Payload Assist Module
    - Soho: SOlar Heliospheric Observatory
    - Span: Space Physics and Analysis Network
    - Tea: Torque Equilibrium Attitude

    Could be confusing, especially at the beginning of a sentence. Probably need to send this back to the society of sub-editors (SOS?) for adjudication.

    And at what point does an acronym like SCUBA or MODEM start getting treated as a word - eg, scuba and modem? Or radar? Sounds like a right old SNAFU to me - or should that be Snafu? Or snafu? Now I am confused...

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  • 2. At 09:39am on 16 Jul 2009, Fearless Fred wrote:

    Tomreeve (1) I thought an Egret was an apology sent via email ;-)

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  • 3. At 1:42pm on 16 Jul 2009, vagueofgodalming wrote:

    So, on the one hand, the Beeb, oops, sorry, the BBC, gets up the nose of NASA and ESA, no doubt causing your questions to be unaccountably passed over at press conferences; on the other, you'll also annoy the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, who preciously like to style themselves 'dstl', so, as they say, it's an ill wind...

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  • 4. At 2:06pm on 16 Jul 2009, Jonathan Amos wrote:

    Tomreeve (1). You identify what I would agree is one of the weaknesses in the housestyle rule. The answer to this, of course, is that these particular examples then become exceptions. Hence, you'll find we don't write "Cites" for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. We write it "CITES". But at what stage do you have so many exceptions that the rule just becomes unworkable? I initiated a debate among the editors here about a year ago, but at that time there was no real support to introduce more upper-case lettering. And here's where the fun starts: look at Esa's logo. The agency renders its name "esa" all lower-case. Too much thought on this issue makes the head hurt.

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  • 5. At 4:56pm on 16 Jul 2009, Disco Dad wrote:

    Perhaps small caps is the answer. I'm not aware of it being widely used on the internet but it is supported in CSS. Perhaps the BBC could blaze the trail for others to follow.

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  • 6. At 12:56pm on 31 Jul 2009, sumarumi wrote:

    Just to add my six-penn'th...

    As an editor, I'm used to the conventions on the use of acronyms, which Jonathan has described so well, and I find that readers usually understand it naturally and unconsciously.

    Re Tom's question about acronyms which are pronounced as existing words, there are two ways in which confusion is avoided.

    The first is context the reader will understand that a discussion on space is not likely to be referring to birds etc.

    The second is clarity unless the acronym is so well known as to need no explanation (such as Nasa), then I would expect the first use to be in conjunction with the full name. For example, I would refer initially to "...the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites)..." and thereafter just as "...Cites..." (so even if it appeared at the start of the sentence, the reader would understand).

    And, yes, Tom, you're right - scuba, modem etc are exceptions as they have moved so far into common understanding that they are now accepted as words in their own right. When/how does that happen? Simply as the osmosis of such popular terms over time, which is what makes our evolving language so interesting!

    Just to finish I was interested to see your suggestion for using small caps for the pronounced acronyms this is the approach weve adopted in the style for the Journal for Applied Research in Higher Education (, while retaining full caps for spelt acronyms such as BBC.

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  • 7. At 1:52pm on 01 Aug 2009, Monjo wrote:

    Apparantly I can subscribe to this blog's feed in either RSS or ATOM. Shouldn't it be Atom, according to the "house rules"? Perhaps small caps or true type can be used for acronyms? e.g. ATOM

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  • 8. At 7:34pm on 29 Aug 2009, TonyM wrote:

    Actually, IMHO, the "style" of writing "NASA" as "Nasa" is simply the result of people using MS Office not knowing how, or not bothering to turn off the default option which automatically converts the former format to the latter. To leave acronyms as they should be - ALL CAPS - you have to go into Tools, Options, Spelling & Grammar and check the box labeled "Ignore words in UPPERCASE".

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  • 9. At 9:06pm on 31 Aug 2009, John Bradford wrote:

    Acronyms are words created from the initial letters of a phrase. So BBC is not an acronym.

    Why can't you use the time-honoured expression 09.35 BST rather than 09:35 UK time.

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  • 10. At 8:07pm on 03 Sep 2009, Bellette wrote:

    No, sorry BBC,

    It's English we're using here, let's not go off on our own version please. I spent my teenage years in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) should I be calling the Ran? I don't think that would be useful.

    Let's get back on track here, just because an acronym looks like an English word, doesn't mean it's a word in other languages. It confuses the whole system we've built up over many decades, either we all do it, or we use what has been long established to work for us.

    Please review and CHANGE (out loud) this rule.



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  • 11. At 8:39pm on 06 Sep 2009, louiswap wrote:

    WoW........,U FOlks havE 2oo MUCH fRee tiME on YUR hANds.

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  • 12. At 1:59pm on 23 Sep 2009, kenneth jessett wrote:

    Actually, BBC is not an acronym, since an acronym must be a word. A word must have a beginning and an end: From the Greek; akron 'end, tip' + onoma name.

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  • 13. At 10:32pm on 02 Oct 2009, mwmonk wrote:

    Is it therefore 'Geek' or 'GEEK'??

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  • 14. At 8:27pm on 13 Oct 2009, stellarinfo wrote:

    What would you make of WMAP?

    Most people pronounce it "Double-U-Map"

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  • 15. At 4:46pm on 20 Nov 2009, CustardBomber wrote:

    Can't remember the last time I saw Laser written LASER...

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