Covid-19 and University style: how to deal with new acronyms

Covid-19 is an acronym, but needn’t be tagged or use all capitals. It’s a more precise term than ‘Coronavirus’.

Did you know that Covid-19 is an acronym? I certainly didn’t until this morning.

Bonus question: do you know what it stands for? I suspect that’s where most people strike out. If you’re interested, it’s:

  • CO: Corona
  • VI: virus
  • D: disease
  • 19: 2019 (the year it was first identified)

It raises an interesting question about acronyms, accessibility and University Style. So I’m going to look at three questions around the styling of this relatively new acronym:

  1. tagging
  2. capitalisation
  3. preferred terms.

Of course, we have amazing research teams here at the University doing research into Coronavirus at the moment and they certainly they don’t need a lesson from me about what to call it. But for the majority of our audiences (staff and students looking for advice about how the pandemic affects them) it’s helpful to have some guidance about balancing accuracy with common understanding.

1. Should ‘Covid-19’ be tagged?

Short answer: No.

Our guidance says that most acronyms and abbreviations should be tagged, for accessibility reasons, so we know what they stand for. But it also says that sometimes sense and common usage is a better approach.

For example, PhD stands for philosophiae doctor, which isn’t really meaningful to anyone. We could alternatively tag it as Doctor of Philosophy, but even that doesn’t actually mean as much as the simple phrase ‘PhD’. So to leave it untagged can actually be the more accessible approach.

Screenreading technology

Decisions about tagging do depend on how a screenreader might process it an abbreviation, too. ‘UK’ is arguably understood as much without the context of ‘United Kingdom’ as with it. However, this should always be tagged because otherwise a screenreader will pronounce it as ‘uck’.

It’s relevant, then, to go over the difference between an abbreviation and an acronym:

An abbreviation is a set of initials, where you would be expected to pronounce each letter – like NHS, UK, or DVD.

  • If there are no vowels in an abbreviation, a screenreader will read out the letters: D-V-D.
  • If there are vowels in an abbreviation, it has to be tagged to be properly pronounced by a screenreader.

An acronym is where you pronounce the set of initials as if it were a full word, like NATO, or Covid-19. Because it’s supposed to be pronounced as a word, it only needs to be tagged where that tag provides meaningful information. So when an acronym is more commonly understood through the word it spells out than by the origin of that word, we don’t need to tag it.

Covid-19 is understood, and pronounced, just fine on its own so doesn’t need to be tagged.

2. Should we use all capitals?

Short answer: No, only initial capital, as it’s a proper noun.

The World Health Organisation and the NHS capitalise COVID-19, because that’s how it’s used in a highly scientific context.

For our purposes though, we’re more interested in what’s readable, and having words in all capitals is less readable. It’s harder to scan and takes up more cognitive load.

Accessible science publications like New Scientist, and news outlets including the BBC and The Guardian also take the approach of using only an initial capital.

The Content Design London Readability Guidelines give a bit more context as to why it’s best to avoid using all upper case.

Capital letters – Readability Guidelines

3. When is it ‘Covid-19’ and when is it ‘Coronavirus?’

Short answer: It’s ‘Covid-19’, at least in the first instance.

In basic terms:

  • ‘Coronavirus’ is a virus family that was first discovered in humans in the 1930s. The SARS outbreak in 2002 was a coronavirus.
  • Covid-19 is the particular coronavirus, first identified in 2019, that is, as the time of writing, the source of the global pandemic. It’s why you’ll hear it referred to as ‘the novel coronavirus’. It’s a new, specific, one.

In terms of common usage, SARS-CoV-1 is the virus that caused the 2002 outbreak mostly referred to as ‘SARS’ and yet SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes what it often referred to as ‘Coronavirus’.

So if you’re referring to Covid-19, it’s best to call it that, at least in the first instance, to be clear. Once you’ve established that you’re talking specifically about that coronavirus, you can then refer to it as ‘Coronavirus’ if you like, to provide some variety and natural language – and help match search terms.

Accessibility and the Style Guide

Our Effective Digital Content video gives some more background on the style guide and use of abbreviations, and you can find more guidance on abbreviations on the wiki.

Style Guide – Effective Digital Content – Media Hopper

Abbreviations, tagging and accessibility – Website Support wiki

2 replies to “Covid-19 and University style: how to deal with new acronyms”

  1. Aaron McHale says:

    Great blog post, really helpful explanation, especially regarding readability and accessibility!

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