Acronyms and initialisms

Acronyms and initialismsBy Mary Morel

Most people use the term acronym to apply to both acronyms and initialisms, but there is a difference. An acronym is an abbreviation of initial letters that forms a new word, such as PACK, which stands for purpose, audience, context and key messages.

An initialism is an abbreviation of initial letters that does not form a new word, for example, AFL.

In some cases, such as ADSL, spelling out the name (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line) doesn’t add much to the meaning and you’re best to provide a brief description instead — ADSL (high-speed internet).

The accepted convention with an initialism is to spell it out in the first instance and put the abbreviation in brackets.

Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA)

Too many initialisms in a document is confusing so consider whether you really need to use them or whether it’s best to spell out your terms throughout your document.

Some acronyms become part of the language

Some acronyms, such as Anzac and scuba have become so widely known that they are seldom explained or spelt out, in fact, most people don’t even know what they stand for ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ and ‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus’.

The problem arises on where to draw the line. I think people too often assume you know their shortcuts, such as UI (User Interface) and apps (applications) when you don’t.

If you’re in doubt about your terms, ask someone outside your industry or spell them out — no-one is going to be offended if you spell out or explain your terms.

Full stop or no full stop?

I’ve noticed that US writers tend to use full stops between letters in initialisms more than Australians and New Zealanders do. Would you write ESL or E.S.L? (English as a second language)

Learn more

If you want to learn more about words, register for my online course, Working with Words (A$39).

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