Is it OK to say PDFs

Is it OK to say “PDFs” instead of “PDF files” or “PDF documents”? A colleague, Paul, and I were discussing this crucial question a few days ago.

How about “emails” instead of “email messages”? Or, horror of horrors, “XMLs” instead of “XML files”? Believe it or not, I’ve seen that one crop up in our documentation. I’ve yet to see or hear anyone talk about “HTMLs” but even that’s not beyond the bounds of possibility. πŸ˜‰

Actually, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing “emails” and can even be heard to use that word myself on occasion. But I still try to steer clear of it in technical documentation. The use of “PDFs” irks me, and I doubt if I’ll ever like “XMLs”. But never say never.

Paul and I decided that our primary aim is to make sure the meaning is clear and to avoid annoying our readers. After all, as technical writers, we want to give people a smooth ride through the text.

What do you think?

Am I being a stickler for detail?

Talking of sticks, this gorgeous visitor appeared on our postbox a few days ago. It’s a stick insect. I put the peg there to give an idea of scale. The stick insect has six legs, two of which are close together on the right hand side of the picture. Its head is on the left.

Is it OK to say PDFs

A stick insect on my letterbox


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 28 May 2011, in language, technical writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. I say: (verbally) PDFs, emails, and XML files.

    I type: PDF files, email messages, and XML files.

    And that stick bug scares me.


    • I’ve been pondering this for about the last few minutes. “PDF” can be properly used as a noun, perhaps because of popular usage. “XML” is not a noun. XML is a technical descriptor, relegated (at least for now) to the world of adjectives.

      Granted, both “XML” and “PDF” are actually the same thing – a way to describe a document’s technical/underlying format. I’m kind of a grammar nazi, but I don’t have a problem with “PDFs”. If, however, you said “XMLs” to me, I’d think you were someone trying to sound smart.

      Does looking at it a different way matter?

      PDFs – Portable Document Formats
      XMLs – eXtensible Markup Languages

      I wonder if it is because PDF is a VERY specific type of document that allows it to be a noun, and not XML because XML is generic (kind of the point of XML)?

      • Hehe, I still can’t make myself like “PDFs”. They’re not portable document formats. They’re documents or files using the specific portable document format that Adobe has built. It happens to be called “PDF” or “Portable Document Format”. πŸ™‚

        I think that the reason it is (may be) OK to say “PDFs” is purely because so many people say it and understand it.

  2. Language is determined by usage, not the grammar mavens. People say “send me a PDF” without causing confusion – so “PDFs” is fine in my book. “Send me an email” is common usage – so I see no harm in “I received three emails.” “XML” is usually an adjective – “an XML editor” “an XML parser” so “XMLs” still sounds wrong.

  3. karen mulholland

    If I’m being formal, I write something like “You can attach .pdf files to email messages.” Informally, I would write “You can attach PDFs to emails.”

    I’m not ready to say “XMLs” – possibly because I don’t deal directly with them, but also possibly because “*** files” is how I talk about most filetypes.

    BTW, we have stick insects in Texas, too. The one in your photo is a male. Don’t make me explain how I know that. πŸ™‚

  4. I’ve wrestled with PDFs recently and becoming ok with it. I also use “JIRAs” for “issues”.


  5. A comment via Twitter from Larry Kunz:

  6. A comment via Twitter from Hamish Blunk:

    Oh no, wait:


  7. Something similar that drives me crazy is the use of “trainings” to describe several training sessions.

  8. Formal writing: PDF files, create a PDF
    Informal writing (e.g. emails) and speech with someone I know: PDFs, “I PDF’ed it”

    Love the stick insect! I don’t know how to ‘sex’ a stick insect, but I do know how to ‘sex’ certain bush cockroaches (

    And it’s good to see that Peg is out and about with Mark Wordsworm hanging around πŸ˜‰

    • Hallo Rhonda

      Ha, I didn’t even think of Wordsworm when I put the peg there. You’re right, it is indeed Peg herself. She is so versatile, she should have a blog all her own.

      That’s fascinating, about sexing a cockroach. So it’s all down to the m-shaped cleft in the last segment of the abdomen. I wonder if it’s something similar with my stick insect.


  9. Stan Stansbury

    I decide this kind of issue based on what the acronym actually means. A pile of PDFs would be a pile of formats, which makes no sense. I do, however, say things like “Do you want a PDF of that?” or “I can PDF that for you.” A pile of electronic mail. Sure. A pile of extensible markup languages? Never.
    I wish we had stick insects in California. And I really wonder how she knows it’s male.

  10. I would probably edit for PDF files and XML files in doco, but definitely say or write PDFs when interacting with most people. I would use Emails all the time, I wouldn’t even think to write email messages. I also don’t hyphenate email. E-ver. πŸ˜‰

  11. electronic mail

    Sarah, imagine all the pain document writers went
    through when electronic mails became emails.


    • I can only begin to imagine the anguish they must have felt! πŸ˜‰

      • I like this discussion because it reminds me that we communicators are to some extent the “keepers of the flame” in today’s Internet-dialect age. Standards of written communication seem to be markedly dropping, with new small distortions of language (like the ones highlighted in this post) appearing every day. We should take it upon ourselves to maintain some kind of order, making an effort to retain at least the spirit of the language’s rules and guidelines. When we do so, we set an example for others to follow.

  12. I attach PDFs in emails all the time! Love the bug, too – or is it a feature?

    In Michigan we call them walking sticks, but they’re browner. (Is it okay to say browner?)

    • Hallo Bill

      Heh heh, it’s a featured bug!

      “Browner” does sound a bit shady, doesn’t it? So I googled it. The first results are all about Carol Browner. The Free Online Dictionary pops up early in the results, and the extract on the Google page talks about “American writer and editor who is considered America’s first professional novelist”. But if you click the link, it does indeed offer “brownΒ·er, brownΒ·est” for the adjective “brown”. Evidently “brownness” is OK too.



  13. A comment via Twitter from Emma Rush:

  14. Hi Sarah,

    Informal: PDFs
    Tech docs: PDF files

    Different languages form plural forms of verbs in different ways and some don’t add ~s. PDFs could cause translation errors. I would try and use PDF files, XML files, Word documents, and PNG files, etc.. (Thinking out loud, do all languages call it a “PDF”? hmm…)

    Love the stick insect!

    Have a good one!

    • oops, thinking of nouns, typing verbs…

      verbs –> nouns


      “Different languages form plural forms of nouns…”

  15. I would be very interested to see if anyone on here is currently working as a technical writer and could advise me how to get into the field. I have a BS in Communications. Until then I will check back here for ideas whenever I have the chance.

  16. Nate McCartney

    On your question of being “a stickler for detail”, I would have to say that, by very nature, we are technical writers BECAUSE we are sticklers for detail. At some level, as Ed stated earlier about being the “keepers of the flame”, we feel a sense of responsibility and duty to the disappearing art of grammar. Granted, we do have a flare for the technical rhealm, but that is nothing more than a reflection of the age in which we live. Our medium has progressed to the monitor, and our muse is most likely a machine, but modern day masters of manuscript morphology are we.

    We are the ones who spot the inconsistancies that others overlook. It bothers us when someone refers to “Windows NT TECHNOLOGY” or misuses “too”. Here in the south (I live in North Carolina in The States), folks seem to put an “S” on the end of just about ANYTHING. “I’m going to Wal-Marts” or “have you seen the sale at Targets?” Or my personal favorite, in reference to a program at church called AWANA, which is an acronym for: Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed, I’ve seen “AWANAS”, and even “AWANA’S” in print on websites and bulletins on several occasions. “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed…ds”.

    That being said, I’m in favor of carrying the torch of proper grammar and punctuation, so long as doing so does not detract from the overall objective of our jobs. If it is more productive for me to use PDFs so that an interdepartmental debate does not distract everyone from their work for 20 minutes…so be it. However, certain lines should not be crossed, as in “XMLs”, and I appreciate the debate in a format such as this. It helps us all to know where the lines should be drawn…and what color they should be…and what font should be used…and…

    • Nate McCartney

      OK…I misspelled “realm” and “inconsistencies”. But I DID take the time to proof-read…mistakenly AFTER I hit the button!

      • Hallo Nate

        Thank you for your amusing comment. Mmmm I like the alliteration in the middle. Yes, it’s a pity this blogging platform doesn’t let people edit their comments after posting them, to fix the odd typo. πŸ™‚ I run into that sort of issue quite often, especially when my phone’s autocorrect feature jumps into the fray.

        It does seem that common usage is the key to acceptance of grammatical changes. I wonder how many people have become more comfortable with “XMLs” after getting to the end of this thread!

        Cheers, Sarah

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