Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

Abbreviations vs. Acronyms vs. Initialisms

Dictionaries don’t all agree on the definitions of these words and neither do style manuals. So I will attempt to shed more light on the distinctions.

Abbreviations
According to Dictionary.com, an abbreviation is a shortened or contracted form of a word or phrase, used to represent the whole, as Dr. for Doctor, U.S. for United States, lb. for pound.

Initialisms and acronyms are two types of abbreviations that are used to shorten phrases.

Initialisms are abbreviations that are pronounced one letter at a time.
Examples:
- FBI
- HTML
- IBM
- DVD
- BTW (by the way)
Note that most people would simply call these abbreviations, which is fine. Some would call them acronyms, which sticklers would challenge.

Acronyms are abbreviations that are pronounced as words.
Examples:
- NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)
- AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)
- OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries)
- SPA (Society of Professional Accountants)
- WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant)
- ASAP (as soon as possible)
- Radar (radio detecting and ranging)
- Scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus)

Do you ever wonder about the origin of a word or when it came to be a common part of the language? According to Ask.com, the word acronym originated in 1943: “As wartime production of names using initials reached an all-time high, it was high time to give a name to the growing arsenal of alphabetic abbreviations. That need was met in a note in the February 1943 issue of American Notes and Queries: ‘Your correspondent who asks about words made up of the initial letters or syllables of other words may be interested in knowing that I have seen such words called by the name acronym, which is useful, and clear to anyone who knows a little Greek.’ ”
“Greek? Yes, acronym follows the model of other designations for types of words, like synonym, antonym, and homonym. The -nym means “a kind of word”; acro- means “top, peak, or initial,” as in acrobat or acrophobia.

Posted on Monday, March 17, 2008, at 10:06 pm


18 Comments

18 Responses to “Abbreviations vs. Acronyms vs. Initialisms”

  1. filip says:

    hello, I would like to ask about a difference between compounds and blends (partmanteau words). Is the rule that compounds must be composed of whole words (e.g. fowerpot) and these words can also be written separately or with a hyphen (e.g. flower pot vs. flower-pot); while blends must be composed only of shortened part of words and are always written as one word – not with a hyphen or separately (smog = smoke + fog).“““““““““““““““““““`

    • Jane says:

      A compound word is formed when two or more words are combined to form a new word (such as flowerpot). The English Rules section on “Hypens” in the Blue Book and our website discusses compound words. According to Rule 1, “To check whether a compound noun is two words, one word, or hyphenated, you may need to look it up in the dictionary. If you can’t find the word in the dictionary, treat the noun as separate words.” There are other rules addressing compound words in that section as well. A portmanteau is a word whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms and a portmanteau does not have a hyphen (such as smog).

  2. NKC says:

    Sir, Should there be dot(.) after single word?
    Example:1) BMW.
    2) Mercedes.
    Kindly help me.

  3. Saeed says:

    I’m studying basic linguistics and came across two questions I cannot make sense:

    How do we categorise modal and auxiliary verbs in Morphology?

    For example, we know that there are two types of free morpheme: Lexical (V, N, Adj and Adv), and functional (conjunction, pronouns, article and prepositions). What about this sentence : I could have done that. What category should we put “could” and “have”? Are they lexical or functional morpheme?
    2. Question: Which word include a bound root?

    indisputable, inaccessible, indigestible and inflammable

    I think that they all include free morpheme! But the book I’m reading says “indisputable” contains a bound root!

    Please let me know if you have any idea.

    Thanks

  4. Martin says:

    Can you address punctuation regarding doctors, dentists, lawyers, public accountants, etc.?

    For example, which of the following is correct (or more widely accepted):

    MD or M.D.

    CPA or C.P.A.

    PhD or Ph.D.

    JD or J.D.

    MS or M.S.

    • You may be disappointed to hear that there is no definitive answer to your question.

      The Chicago Manual of Style
      says, “Use no periods with abbreviations that appear in full capitals, whether two letters or more and even if lowercase letters appear within the abbreviation.” Examples include MD and PhD.

      However, the Associated Press Stylebook says:

      Use periods in most two-letter abbreviations: U.S., U.N., U.K., B.A., B.C.
      Use all caps, but no periods, in longer abbreviations when the individual letters are pronounced: ABC, CIA, FBI

      And this appears in their question and answer forum:
      Q. According to AP style, M.D. and Ph.D. always include periods: Does the same rule apply for JD, Juris Doctor?

      A. AP style is LL.D. for Doctor of Laws, so by that guidance J.D. is correct.

      Q. Why is it M.D. (with periods) but RN (no periods)?

      A. Webster’s abbreviation is RN, though registered nurse should be spelled on first reference in AP stories. M.D. (with periods) is a stylebook exception to Webster’s listing.

      Ph.D., Ph.D.s The preferred form is to say a person holds a doctorate and name the individual’s area of specialty.

      CPA (all caps) is widely used on first reference. If there’s any doubt readers might not know the abbreviation, use the full job title, certified public accountant, in the at some point in the text.

      Master of Arts, Master of Science, Master of Business Administration Abbreviated M.A., M.S., but MBA. A master’s degree or a master’s is acceptable in any reference.

      In cases like these, we recommend choosing your method and staying consistent.

  5. Amy says:

    Hello,
    I’m currently writing my thesis for my PhD (I’m English) and my supervisor is German keeps removing my capitalisations when I define an acronym. For instance, I define Central Nervous System (CNS) in my work for later use as an acronym with capitalisations. He changes it to central nervous system (CNS). Other scientific papers seem to use my method. Would you be able to help me with who is correct here?
    Many thanks,
    Amy

    • The Chicago Manual of Style’s rule (8.143) says, “Names of diseases, syndromes, diagnostic procedures, anatomical parts, and the like are lowercased, except for proper names forming part of the term. Acronyms and initialisms are capitalized.” Examples:

      acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS
      computed tomography or CT

      You may also wish to consult either the AMA Manual of Style or Scientific Style and Format.

  6. Richard says:

    I think logic gets overlooked in deciding these matters. ASAP is not a word even if you pronounce it as such cf WASP which is.

    • As our blog states, “ASAP” is not an actual word but an acronym. It is often pronounced as a word. Some people do pronounce it one letter at a time, in which case one could argue that it is an initialism.

  7. Doug says:

    I’ve been listening to sports arguments regarding the initialism RBI v. RBIs. Meaning run batted in. The argument against RBIs is you wouldn’t say run(s) batted ins. I’ve always thought acronyms are the same as words, like FBI you would pluralize it with an s or at least I’ve seen it that way multiple times. Is it the same for RBI?

  8. Abhirup says:

    MOtor Vehicle Emission Simulator (MOVES) -what type is this? As you can see it tales the first 2letters of Motor. Does it qualify as a Mnemonic?

    • A mnemonic is something that helps people remember something (such as a rule or a list of names). We consider MOVES to be an acronym, since it is an abbreviation that is pronounced as a word.

  9. Bruce says:

    I apologise for what is perhaps a trivial question.

    In the case of FBI, I notice it is an abbreviation (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and as such would be written a FBI not an FBI.

    I have a problem with the abbreviation SAP (Systems Applications Products the software company). To me SAP is an abbreviation but according to some people it’s an acronym therefore a company owned by them is referred to as an SAP company not a SAP (clearly one of us is nuts!).

    Q: an SAP (because it’s an acronym – well it isn’t is it) or a SAP (because it’s an abbreviation).

    Please advise, many thanks Bruce

    • The Chicago Manual of Style’s rule “An comes before words with a vowel sound,” cites the following examples:

      an LSAT exam room
      an X-Files episode

      It is the initial vowel sound that is important. We recommend “an FBI” but “a” or “an” before SAP depends on how you want the reader to say it.

Leave a Reply