Posey's Tips & Tricks

Microsoft Helps Office Users Cope with Unfamiliar Acronyms

A new AI-powered feature in Office scans your e-mails and documents to help you tell one "SaaS" apart from another.

Acronyms have long been something of a pet peeve for me. While I get that acronyms have their place, there is such a thing as having too much of a good thing.

Sometimes an acronym can have multiple meanings. When I worked for the military, I quickly discovered that "POV" could stand for "point of view," "persistence of vision" or "privately owned vehicle." For that particular example, it's pretty easy to use context to figure out what the acronym means, but that doesn't always work.

Several years ago, for instance, someone asked me to write an article about SaaS. Based on the context of our e-mail conversation, I thought that the article was supposed to be about security-as-a-service. After submitting the article, however, I received an e-mail from an editor who was confused because she was expecting an article pertaining to storage-as-a-service.

If you have spent much time in IT, then you know that this is hardly an isolated example; the IT industry makes extensive use of acronyms. In my case, though, IT isn't the only area where I am bombarded by a steady stream of sometimes-incomprehensible acronyms. Since 2015, I have been training to go to space, and I have also spent a lot of time studying medicine as a part of that training. Aerospace and health care both use just as many acronyms as IT. Some days it is a struggle just to keep up with it all.

Thankfully, help has arrived. Microsoft is currently previewing an Office 365 feature that is designed to make it easier to cope with acronym use. If you are in Microsoft's Insider preview program for Office, you can access the feature by opening Word and selecting the References tab at the top of the screen. As you can see in Figure 1, there is an Acronyms option on the right side of the toolbar. Clicking on the Acronyms button reveals the Acronyms pane.

[Click on image for larger view.] Figure 1: The Acronyms option appears on Word's References toolbar.

If you recall, earlier in this column I used the acronym "SaaS." When I open the Acronyms pane, Word defines "SaaS" for me.

Now, here is where things get interesting. You will notice in the text that I didn't explicitly define what "SaaS" means by writing something like "software-as-a-service (SaaS)." Even so, Word was able to figure out that "SaaS" often means "software-as-a-service." How did it figure this out? By looking at my e-mail!

If you look at Figure 2, you can see that the Acronyms pane specifically tells you how it came to its assessment of what a particular acronym means.

[Click on image for larger view.] Figure 2: Word was able to use my e-mail to figure out the meaning of "SaaS."

As you look at the screen-capture above, you will notice that there is an arrow icon next to the words "Found in Your Email." You can actually click on this arrow to see in which e-mail message the acronym was found. In this case, Word found an e-mail message from VMware. As you can see in Figure 3, there is even an option to open the message.

[Click on image for larger view.] Figure 3: Word can even open an e-mail for your reference.

The cool thing about Word's Acronyms feature is that it does not depend solely on your e-mail for figuring out acronyms. Word can also use your documents.

To find out how the Acronyms feature deals with unfamiliar acronyms, I opened a NASA document that I knew was jam-packed with acronyms. If you look at Figure 4, you can see that Word used both e-mail messages and files to figure out what some of the acronyms mean.

[Click on image for larger view.] Figure 4: Word leverages a variety of data sources.

Of course, Word's Acronyms feature isn't perfect. As it stands, the feature ignores unknown acronyms. Earlier, for example, I used the acronym "POV," but that did not appear in the Acronyms pane because Word had no frame of reference. My hope is that in time, Word will include an option to add entries to a sort of acronym dictionary.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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