Short and Sweet: Distinguishing abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms
In an earlier blog, I had written about Americans using (written) internet abbreviations—like LOL and OMG—in their (spoken) conversations. Today, I’d like to revisit how American English shortens other expressions it uses in daily communication.
If you’ve lived or worked around Americans, you know their English is full of shortened ways to say things. One might believe this is because Americans are consumed with saving time, but in fact, all languages have shorter, more efficient ways of saying things when they want to. Because human minds work more quickly than their corresponding tongues, speakers are always looking for ways to get out more information with fewer syllables.
Three ways of doing this are with abbreviations, initialisms, and acronyms. Because these three types are often confused, let’s do a quick review.
Abbreviations are a shortened form of the entire expression.
- TV /ti’vi/ – television
- op-ed /ap’ed/ – opinion-editorial
- Cal Tech /kael’tek/ – California Technological University
Initialisms are pronounced one letter at a time. Note that the names of the letters tend to link together as they’re pronounced, with stress falling on the last letter.
- USA /yuwe’sei/ – United States of America
- TGIF /tidziyai’yef/ – Thank God It’s Friday
- m.p.h. /empi’yaitsch/ – miles per hour
Acronyms are said as one word.
- NATO /‘neitou/ – North Atlantic Treaty Organization
- scuba /‘skuba/ – self-contained underwater breathing apparatus
- NASA /‘naesa/ – National Space & Aeronautics Administration
You should know that many Americans don’t recognize the distinction, often calling all three “abbreviations” when the expressions may be acronyms or initialisms. Don“t worry; just consider yourself smarter than most of your American friends now.
Below are some common short forms in English. Do you know what they stand for? Can you pick out the seven acronyms that are pronounced as one word? (Answers are below.)
10. ZIP code
If you would like a list of the 100 most common American English short forms, write me at email@example.com and I’ll mail it to you. Below are the answers to the short forms above.
1. VIP /viyai’pi/ very important person
2. NASCAR /‘naeskar/ National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing
3. CEO /siyi’yo/ Chief Executive Officer
4. IQ /ai’kyu/ – intelligence quotient [test score]
5. R&D /aren’di/ research and development
6. AIDS /eidz/ acquired immune deficiency syndrome
7. r.p.m. /arpi’yem/ revolutions per minute
8. P.O. box /piyou ‘baks/ post office box
9. JPEG /‘dzeipeg/ Joint Photographic Experts Group
10. ZIP code /‘zip koud/ Zone Improvement Program [mailing]
11. NYPD /enwaipi’di/ New York Police Department
12. YMCA /waiyemsi’yei/ Young Men’s Christian Association
13. PhD /piyeitsch’di/ Doctor(ate) of Philosophy
14. radar /‘reidar/ radio detecting and ranging
15. JD /dzei’di/ Juris Doctor(ate) [law degree]
16. PJs /‘pidzeiz/ pajamas
17. ESL /iye’sel/ English as a Second Language
18. ASAP /eiyesei’pi/ as soon as possible
19. OPEC /‘oupek/ Oil Producing & Exporting Countries
20. RSVP = /aresvi’pi/ Repondez s’il vous plait [Please respond to invitation.]
21. AAA = /tripe’lei/ Automobile Association of America
22. vs. /‘versez/ versus [against]
23. IMO /aiye’mou/ in my opinion
24. PIN /pin/ personal identification number
25. NFL /ene’fel/ National Football League