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May 06, 2011


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Yes, acronyms are exclusionary. I try to define an acronym the first time I use it in a piece. That's because I remember how many people ask me, "What's Twitter again?" Gotta assume fewer people know what you're talking about than you think.

Thanks for the useful article.

Larry Alexander

Just for clarity, the examples you refer to in your blog are actually initialisms or alphabetisms. A true acronym uses the first letters or parts of words, but become pronounceable words themselves. Examples of acronyms are SCUBA, RADAR, UNESCO, SNAFU, etc.

CSS, MWUs, DVD, USA are examples of initialisms.

I must say that I do adhere to a similar rule for initialisms. My "Magic Number" is usually three; the intialism must be used at least three times before I define it and use it. Although rules were made to be broken. It all depends how familiar I feel the term is to my intended audience.


Jennie Ruby

Thanks for your comments. @Larry: On the issue of whether the distinction between initialisms or acronyms matters, I have a question for you. As far as I can determine, the only time the distinction matters is when deciding whether to precede one of these abbreviations with the article a or an. Are there other times that you are aware of when the distinction matters in a practical way? When the distinction does not matter, I admit, I have joined the ranks of those who don't bother to make the distinction. So many people are in those ranks, that Merriam Webster lists acronym as a synonym for initialism.

Linda Aragoni

The 5-time policy makes a lot of sense to me. In newspaper work I used the write-in-full-first-time bit. That's OK in a short piece, but not so good in a longer one where looking back can be a real nuisance.

Larry Alexander

Off the top of my head, I can't think of any examples where the difference between an acronym and an abbreviation (initialism) would make a difference.

You do, however, bring up one of the most interesting and sometimes confusing aspect regarding abbreviations which is the use of the correct article. It appears that most authorities use pronunciation as the determination of the correct article, e.g. an FBI agent. Although sometimes this can be problematic as in a URL, as some readers will say "earl" while others will spell out U-R-L.

The other interesting abbreviation related dilemma is the use of periods. For acronyms, it seems that the use of periods (SCUBA vs. S.C.U.B.A.) has fallen out of favor. Then there are the weird cases where USA is written without periods, but U.S. usually has the periods.

In any case, as I reiterate from my last post, rules were made to be broken.

Ben Griffin

Acronyms and abbreviations tend to be an in-group sort of communication. They are used to save time for a small number of people talking about the same subject, very often at work. Being like buzzwords, people tend to tune them out until they need them.
Although some like ATM and PIN have become ubiquitous. Or SWAT, which does seem to accurately describe what that special police unit does.

There are some backronyms like LOL, that we only write, and don't usually use in conversation. It's not likely we will say, "That has me LOL." If we feel something is funny, we laugh. Without the technology of computers and cell phones, we couldn't text much and these shortened terms wouldn't be in use.

Due to technology, and being spoken in more and more countries, shortened forms of words are a sign the English language is growing. Much of this growth has been deregulated in the past few decades as more and more avenues of communication are being developed for people.

Jim Losey

What is the rule for introducing an acronym that first time? In particular, must quotes AND parentheses both be used?

There will be a high-level meeting of representatives of the North Atantic Treaty Organization ("NATO") this week.
There will be a high-level meeting of representatives of the North Atantic Treaty Organization (NATO) this week.

Jim Losey

Sorry for the typo: should be "Atlantic"

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