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Initialisms vs. Acronyms

By Brian Hansen

     To the uninitiated, ACT is an acronym. After all, the initial letters form a word; and, as we all know, acronyms are words formed by the first letters or syllables of each of the words or major words that make up the acronym. Thus, NOW and scuba, for example, are acronyms.
     Of course, grammar is never that simple, and those of us "in the know" have coined a neologism to cover those quasi-acronyms that are not pronounced as words: initialisms. IQ, ISBN, URL, GOP, UK, CPA, NYPD, OBGYN, OR, ER, CPR, CIA, UN, and ROTC are easily recognizable as initialisms, and even though ACT does form a word, it is not pronounced "act" but "a-c-t"; thus, ACT is, alas, also an initialism. To further complicate matters, ASAP, UNICEP, NATO, OSHA, SIDS, AIDS, and UNESCO are not initialisms but full-fledged acronyms even though they don't form intelligible words. Familiar acronyms and initialisms contain no periods.
     Because acronyms are pronounced as words, they are usually written without periods. Some common acronyms listed in Real Good Grammar, Too are as follows:

COBOL - Common Business-Oriented Language

SADD - Students Against Drunk Driving

NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration

yuppie - young, urban professional

When written lowercase, initialisms generally require periods; when written in uppercase, they do not:

UPS - United Parcel Post

ERA - Equal Rights Amendment

b.v.d's - the initials of the company Bradley, Voorhees, and Day

a.m. - ante meridiem

p.m. - post meridiem

IRA - Individual Retirement Account

STD - sexually transmitted disease



From the Desk of Mamie Webb Hixon, the Grammar Guru

As long as acronyms and initialisms are universally recognizable, such as BA, MA, MD, JD, Ph.D and UNCF, or as long as they are used by people working together on specific projects (LPOs,), these abbreviations are easily understood. One kind of problem arises when a familiar abbreviation like AA could mean Alcoholics Anonymous or Associate of Arts, depending on the context. If the writer doesn't provide a parenthetical explanation, then the reader is confused.

Acronyms such as NASA, NATO, fax, Zip Code, radar, laser, and sonar are so commonplace as words in the English language that hardly anyone remembers that they are indeed words formed from the initials or other parts of several words (especially the acronyms spelled with lower-case letters). These kinds of acronyms don't need parenthetical explanations.

When acronyms and initialisms are not recognizable (PSI or the ANSWER Coalition), they might not be understood by the reader.

Since initialisms such as MRI, VCR, DVD, IRS, USA, RSVP, SUV, DNA, DUI, UFO, EKG, YMCA and YWCA, NAACP, BC, AD, DMV, PSA, and a.m. and p.m. are better known by their initials, use the initialisms. Similarly, since Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and National Organization for Women are better known by their acronyms AIDS and NOW respectively, use the acronyms. Other common acronyms include scuba, radar, sonar, laser, Zip code, FEMA, NASA, NATO, and OPEC.

A good rule of thumb is this: use abbreviations only when your audience knows what they mean; when using unfamiliar acronyms and initialisms, first spell out the multiword term and place its initialism or acronym in parentheses. Thereafter, use the abbreviation.




What do the acronyms NOW and scuba stand for?

Call the Grammar Hotline at (850)474-2129 for the answer.

vs. "Quotation Marks"

By Jennell McCullough

Which of the following is correct?

1. Benjamin Franklin said remember that time is money.

2. Among the reference books on the chairman's bookshelf is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Answer: neither.

     When quoting directly, use quotation marks to differentiate between your words and those from a source. Use a comma to introduce a quotation, and always place periods inside the closing quotation marks, even if the quotation is only a single word. So, sentence one should read as follows:

Benjamin Franklin said, "Remember that time is money."

     Notice that the first word of a complete quoted statement begins with a capital letter. Quotation marks are also used to enclose these titles: articles, chapters in a book, songs, short stories, essays, poems, and speeches.

     Italics is used primarily to identify certain titles such as books, plays, newspapers, magazines, paintings, sculptures, movies, ships, and specific names of aircraft. Therefore, sentence two should be written as follows:

Among the reference books on the chairman's bookshelf is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

According to Mamie Hixon's Real Good Grammar, Too, italics (underlining) is also used to identify foreign words or phrases that have not become adapted to English usage. If in doubt as to whether a word has been adapted to English, consult a dictionary. Some common foreign words, phrases, and expressions that have become anglicized are as follows:
the status quo a coup
de facto laissez faire
ad hoc committee cum laude
ex officio double entendre

     Use italics to set off words used as words, and use quotation marks to set off definitions as in the following:

According to the dictionary, audit simply means "verification or examination of financial accounts or records."



Usually not italicized, e.g. is a formal abbreviation for for example and usually precedes phrases.


Some terms of the contract, e.g., duration and job classification, were settled in the first two bargaining sessions.

Some terms of the contract, for example, duration and job classification, were settled in the first two bargaining sessions.

i.e. is a formal abbreviation for that is and usually precedes clauses.


We were a fairly heterogeneous group; i.e., there were managers, forepersons, and vice-presidents at the meeting.

We were a fairly heterogeneous group; that is, there were managers, forepersons, and vice-presidents at the meeting.


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