Acronyms, initialisms, abbreviations... say what? When it comes to the wonderful world of abbreviations, they are everywhere. Abbreviations are just words or phrases that are shortened. But, what is the difference between an acronym and initialism? It comes down to how you pronounce an abbreviation that is going to make it an initialism, an acronym or both.
You’ve now walked into the fun world of abbreviations. In short:
An abbreviation is when a phrase or word is shortened to a word or letters.
It could be abbreviated into one sound like “Rom.” for Romeo and Juliet. Or, it could be shortened to its first letters like NRA for the National Rifle Association. When it comes to abbreviations, you will commonly see two different types: initialisms and acronyms. So, what’s the difference between an acronym and initialism?
- Initialisms are when you abbreviate a word to its initials. Then, you say those initials as individual letters, like how “National Security Administration” becomes N-S-A. The United States becomes U-S.
- Acronyms are abbreviations that also use initials, but those initials are pronounced as a word rather than saying the individual initials. For example, “National Aeronautical and Space Administration” becomes NASA and is pronounced “nah-sah.”
To truly understand the difference between an initialism and acronym, you can look at examples of each in business, medicine and politics/government. You can then see how some abbreviations can be both initialisms and acronyms.
Initialisms are a common component of both official and conversational English. Initialisms are featured in politics, corporate branding, scientific and medical terminology, and casual conversation alike. Review a few common examples.
Businesses frequently use initialisms as part of their branding, usually as a way of improving out-of-date, extra long, or not-quite-global phrasing.
- AT&T: American Telephone and Telegraph demonstrates the modernizing effect of using an initialism. Telegraphs aren’t in common use anymore, but AT&T keeps its legacy as the very first telecom company (founded by Alexander Graham Bell!) while modernizing its branding with an initialism.
- BMW: Bayerische Motoren Werke (translation: Bavarian Motor Works) is a classic example of using initialism to globalize a brand.
- KFC: Founded by Colonel Harland Sanders in Corbin, Kentucky, KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) has become a global brand. Its initialism can be found on stores from Alaska to Singapore.
- IBM: The original tech giant’s full name is International Business Machines, but virtually all of their branding relies on this initialism.
Doctors and nurses are busy. This means that they don’t have time to say or write all the complicated words that are found in the field of medicine. Therefore, initialisms can come in handy. Check out a few initialisms used in the medical field.
- ALS: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is just one of many diseases more widely referred to by its initialism. The unwieldy full name is necessary for doctors to specify the particular nature of the illness, but an abbreviation serves for quicker communication.
- EMT: Emergency medical technicians are often the first responders in medical emergencies. It only makes sense for them to shorten their professional title using an initialism.
- ENT: Not to be confused with EMT above, an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist treats illness and injury in those parts of the body.
- PTSD: Initialisms are particularly common when referring to mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder. It simplifies phrasing while keeping things specific.
Initialisms in government are so common that they’ve coined their own joke: “alphabet soup.” The use of initialisms in politics around the world reflects a shared need to save time and space without losing specificity.
- FBI: The Federal Bureau of Investigation, America’s police force investigating violations of federal law, is universally known simply as the FBI.
- MP: A common initialism throughout the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries, MP is shorthand for Member of Parliament. Ironically, the head of a government made up of MPs is usually the PM, or Prime Minister.
- NHS: The United Kingdom has plenty of alphabet soup of its own. The NHS, or National Health Service, is the universal health coverage enjoyed by British natives.
- RCMP: The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or “Mounties,” is Canada’s federal police force, also providing law enforcement on the provincial and local level in various parts of the country.
Now, it’s time for acronyms. While not as common in some areas, you can find acronyms all over the board or world for that matter. Check out how acronyms compare to initialisms.
Big businesses might use acronyms to make them stand out or just to shorten a long name. A few famous examples include:
- Fiat: This is actually an acronym the motor company uses. Fiat stands for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Italian automobile factory of Turin).
- MAC: You might not have realized it, but MAC actually stands for Makeup Art Cosmetics. Your new lipstick brand is an acronym.
- D.A.R.E.: Many people know this one in the U.S., but D.A.R.E. stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education.
- Geico: It might come as a shock, but the creators of Geico Insurance weren’t obsessed with geckos they were targeting government employees. Geico actually stands for Government Employees Insurance Company.
Medicine is full of complicated words and phrases that doctors just don’t have time for. While you’ll find initialisms a plenty, acronyms are right in the thick of it too.
- HIPAA: If you’ve ever been to the doctor in the United States, then you’ve likely signed the HIPAA regulations. HIPAA stands for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
- AIDS: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is an illness that is better known as AIDS.
- CPAP: If you have breathing issues at night, you might need to use a CPAP machine. CPAP actually stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure but it is better known as “see-paap.”
- SAD: SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder. The changing of the seasons typically from fall to winter causes depression.
The government is not without its acronyms. You can find them all over the place from the different departments to laws. Check out a few that you might already know.
- NATO: You might have heard NATO mentioned in the news and wondered what it was. NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It’s an alliance formed between several countries.
- NAFTA: Going right along with NATO, you have NAFTA (pronounced “naaf-tah”). This is the North American Free Trade Agreement.
- OPEC: OPEC typically comes into play in government when they are talking about oil. That is because OPEC (pronounced “oh-peck”) is the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
- AMMO - This isn’t just a name for bullets for a gun. AMMO is the acronym for the Aircraft Munitions Maintenance Organization.
It is the nature of active, living languages that as soon as a rule is set down, exceptions arise. Initialisms and acronyms are no different. English speakers split the difference between initialisms and acronyms simply by pronouncing certain abbreviations per their individual letters, and other times as single words.
- FAQ: As gamers and other digital natives know well, FAQ stands for “Frequently Asked Questions,” a type of online guide that answers questions commonly asked by users of a given digital resource. We have one of our own! As to whether it is pronounced letter by letter (i.e., “F-A-Q”) or as the single word “fack,” both are considered acceptable.
- JPG: Here’s another one for digital natives. Whether this common image extension is sounded out by letter (i.e., “J-P-G”) or pronounced as “jay-peg” is, just like FAQ, very much a matter of opinion.
- LSAT: It would be tempting to assume that the LSAT, the admission test for American law school, comes from the same abbreviation as SAT. It doesn’t. It simply stands for Law School Admission Test. However, it can be pronounced letter by letter or as “elle-sat.”
- MCAT: Another initialism/acronym from the world of standardized testing, the Medical College Admission Test is taken by students who hope to become doctors. Both “M-C-A-T” and “em-cat” are valid pronunciations.
- UCLA: The difference between acronyms and initialisms can also be a deliberate choice on the part of the speaker. In the world of college sports, for instance, it’s commonplace for a team’s fans (or detractors) to joke about an institution known by an initialism by pronouncing its name as a word instead. For instance, they might say “uhk-lah” instead of “you-see-elle-ay” for the University of California, Los Angeles.
You’ve looked at abbreviations that can be acronyms, initialisms and both, but what about those abbreviations that are neither? There are a few of them out there. When you say these abbreviations, you’ll say the full word but you know exactly what they mean in writing. Check out the list to see some common abbreviations that you might use everyday.
- Govt.: When writing, you might use “govt.” as a quick way to discuss the government. It makes great short-hand and everyone knows what you are talking about.
- Corp.: Short for corporation, this is one that you might see on the internet. Corporations will also shorten their name with “Corp.” on letterhead and business cards.
- Abbr.: If you are going to abbreviate a word, then you might give someone a warning by using “abbr.” for abbreviation.
- Add.: When you’re shortening an address for someone, you might use “add.” to abbreviate it. This is especially common on forms. For example, “Add. - 1234 Broadway.”
- St.: Another common abbreviation that is neither an acronym nor an initialism is street, which you would abbreviate as “st.” You might also see “blvd.” for boulevard, “rd.” for road, and “hwy” for highway.
The distinction between acronyms and initialisms - acronyms are pronounced as a single word, initialisms are pronounced as a series of individual letters - is, like many English language rules, very simple and slightly subjective. For some more entertaining abbreviations, check out our list of funny acronyms. Happy learning!