Initialisms and Acronyms

By Mark Nichol

Most people know what an acronym is. But few are as familiar with term initialism, or of an important distinction between the two.

An acronym is an initial abbreviation that can be pronounced as a word, such as NASA or WASP. This term is also used to refer to a series of initials pronounced individually, such as FBI or TGIF, but the technical term is initialism. What’s the BFD (“big, fat deal,” though another word starting with f is sometimes used)? The answer is the.

Because acronyms like NASA are pronounced as words (“na-suh,” in this case), there’s no need to precede them with the definite article: You wouldn’t write “Budget cutbacks hit the NASA hard.” (Though the is essential if NASA is used as an adjective, as in “Budget cutbacks hit the NASA project hard.”)

But initialisms require the: “The FBI announced his capture several hours later.” That’s because the term is pronounced letter by letter: “eff-bee-eye.” (The only usage that omits the definite article is in a headline: “FBI Announces Suspect’s Capture.”)

And when do you use an acronym or an initialism, when do you spell it out, and when do you do both? In more formal writing, the standard approach is to introduce an agency, organization, or some other entity that uses such an abbreviation, or abbreviations of terminology, by spelling out the name on first reference.

If a subsequent reference (called, in publishing, the second reference, no matter how many times it is repeated) appears in proximity — say, the same paragraph — and few, if any, other abbreviations appear in the interim, simply use the abbreviation thereafter.

However, if the next usage is farther away, it’s best to insert the abbreviation in parentheses immediately after the spelled-out reference to establish an association in the reader’s mind when it’s not supported by proximal use of the abbreviation. If the abbreviation is not mentioned again for some time, or it appears only up to a handful of times, spelling it out again (perhaps every time) is a good idea. Depending on the term and the publication, however, the hand-holding parenthesis may be unnecessary.

Many specialized publishers maintain a list of abbreviations familiar to readers of their publications that specifies whether each one requires abbreviation accompanying the spelled-out first reference, or needs to be spelled out at all.

For example, an astronomy magazine is likely to note in its house style guide that NASA does not need to be spelled out, and many other publications do likewise because of the familiarity of the agency’s name in our society. By contrast, less common abbreviations like OEM (original equipment manufacturer) should be spelled out except in a manufacturing-industry publication. As with many usage prescriptions, it’s all about the context.

Oh, and one more point, so to speak: Notice that no acronym or initialism is this post includes periods. They’re generally considered outdated and superfluous. Even two-letter forms like AM and PM, MD and RN, and BC and AD go without, though US stubbornly retains them in many publications.

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41 Responses to “Initialisms and Acronyms”

  • Cecily

    There is an overlap between acronyms and initialisms: combinations that most people say as letters, but a few people pronounce. They are mainly text and internet terms, such as ROFL (Rolls On the Floor Laughing), which I have sometimes heard – and even seen written – as “roffle”.

  • Kathryn

    One caveat about initialisms always taking an article: there are some (and I have trouble formulating a general rule) which don’t. Specific examples are GE, IBM, UCLA. It would sound awkward and affected to precede any of them with the article. But I can’t explain the distinction between UCLA and the FBI (I could if it were just the two companies, but I’m not sure the explanation wouldn’t be twaddle invented for the purpose of explaining, as opposed to a genuine distinction).

  • Mimi

    Thank you very much for this post. I do have one question that always comes up when using Initialisms: when using indefinite articles, are we to consider the fully spelled-out term or the letter-by-letter pronunciation (a FBI agent or an FBI agent)? I have always used the latter, to align with how it would be said out-loud. However I have seen it written as “a FBI agent”, and am wondering which is correct and how others handle this? Thanks!

  • Fitz Townsend

    There is an additional difference that I deem as correct in these two uses. Acronyms are no longer written all in capital letters, whereas initialisms are. Thus, Nasa or Wasp, and FBI or CNN.
    This is certainly the style I prefer to apply inhouse in numerous business publications.

  • Charles Flynn

    Wow! Nice one Kathryn. The Rule of the Inexplicables.

    Another point not mentioned is that CAPS usage is different in different cultures, e.g., BBC (initialism), but also Nasa (Brit acronym) or NASA (US acronym).

    I seem to remember that this was also a matter of how many letters are in the acronym, with initialisms always in CAPS. But I think this whole area is in flux.

  • ApK

    I think it’s been mentioned here at one time that acronyms that get accepted as standard words lose their all-cap status. Scuba and laser are both acronyms, but don’t get any special capitalization.

    Also, I wonder if it might be prudent to use periods for terms like U.S. when without the period, it might be confused for another word with the same spelling? Like the pronoun “us” or even the magazine title “US”

    ApK

  • ApK

    Cecily,
    “such as ROFL (Rolls On the Floor Laughing), which I have sometimes heard – and even seen written – as “roffle”.”

    I don’t think there is any real overlap.
    I can think of no pronunciation rule in English that would make “rofl” be pronounced that way. I don’t think there is any overlap. Those people are simple faux-pronouncing initialisms. Same as int he movie “THX 1138…” they call the people with the THX prefix “Thix” but there is no English logic to it. It’s still just an initialism, not an acronym.

  • Ed Buckner

    I work for the EPA and we use many acronyms and initialisms as do many US government agencies. The use becomes jargon that is unintelligible to the public. We even have acronyms within acronyms. NESHAP (Nee Shap) stands for National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants. HON stands for Hazardous Organic NESHAP. Not only is it redundant, it repeats itself.

    You have to be careful when turning an initialism into an acronym. One of our DOJ attorneys kept trying to pronounce the initialism for National Cooperative Refinery Association (NCRA). It bordered on the profane.

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for the clarification. I never heard of or thought about initialism before reading this post.

  • Stephanie

    DFTBA!

  • Andy Knoedler

    One other minor note: an initialism will be proceeded by the indefinite article “an” when its first letter begins with a vowel sound (e.g., “an FBI agent”) and by “a” when the first letter begins with a consonant sound (e.g., “a GE plant”).

  • ApK

    “One other minor note: an initialism will be proceeded by the indefinite article “an” when its first letter begins with a vowel sound (e.g., “an FBI agent”) and by “a” when the first letter begins with a consonant sound (e.g., “a GE plant”).”

    That’s a standard English rule, not specific to initialisms, but any insight as to why some don’t call for an article at all? Like UCLA or NASA?

  • Ken

    Mark, did you mean “in” instead of “is” in “Notice that no acronym or initialism is this…”?

    Good post, thank you.

  • Mark Nichol

    Kathryn:

    Thanks for calling attention to my omission of exceptions like GE, IBM, and UCLA. Two of these exceptions can be readily explained: Because the definite article is not used preceding the spelled-out names for these companies (which, by the way, they no longer use), it isn’t necessary before the initialism, either. But abbreviation of university names is an inexplicable anomaly.

    Acronyms are never preceded by articles because they assume the form of names. You don’t say “the Kathryn” (well, maybe your friends do), and “the NASA” is equally unnecessary.

  • Mark Nichol

    Charles:

    Thanks for your addendum. Actually, The Chicago Manual of Style describes (but does not prescribe) that, even in American English, long acronyms tend to be initial-capped (only the first letter is capitalized) — hence Nasdaq and the like. Your fellow commenter ApK also mentions acronyms such as scuba that are formatted in all lowercase letters.

  • Mark Nichol

    Andy:

    That’s not a minor note. I should have mentioned the distinction between the use of a and an. Thanks for catching that omission.

  • Tammi Kibler

    Interesting, I too had not considered the difference between initialisms and acronyms.

    I am pleased to see periods dropped from so many common usages, but I stopped by to whinge about the persistent periods in US addresses: P.O. Box. I wonder why we have not converted to PO Box.

    Perhaps the answer lies in the language underlying the US law that only the USPS (no periods!) can deliver to P.O. Boxes.

  • Mark Nichol

    Tammi:

    The Chicago Manual of Style recommends omitting the periods in “P.O. Box,” but, understandably, Chicago is not ubiquitous on domestic bookshelves. Also, perhaps partly due to the USPS’s institutional inertia, adoption of the simplification among the general public is slow in coming.

  • Mark Nichol

    ApK:

    Yes, I think the exception for U.S. is granted, in part, for the reason you mention: possible confusion with us when it appears in all-caps (as in a newspaper headline). But in my opinion, that’s a quibble that doesn’t justify an exception.

  • Peter

    But abbreviation of university names is an inexplicable anomaly.

    FWIW, most of the initialisms I can think of off the top of my head don’t take the article, or variously take the article or not depending on who’s saying it (sometimes you can tell whether someone’s an insider or an outsider based on the addition of “the” to the organization’s initialism).

    What about abbreviations made up of the initial syllables (actually, sometimes medial syllables in the examples I’m thinking of…e.g., COMSUBLANT), rather than just the initial letters, of words? Is there a word for that?

  • Andy Knoedler

    “What about abbreviations made up of the initial syllables (actually, sometimes medial syllables in the examples I’m thinking of…e.g., COMSUBLANT), rather than just the initial letters, of words? Is there a word for that?”

    I’d call it wretched militaryese.

  • Emma

    I like your “initialisms use ‘the'” rule; I’d never realized that. However, it seems to me that (at least in American usage) the names of TV and radio stations would be an exception. For example, you would hear an American talk about “the new show on ABC”, not “the new show on the ABC”. As far as I know, Canadian usage is the same way, but from what I understand British usage follows the normal rule (“the new show on the BBC”).

  • Cecily

    ApK: Personally I don’t like the visual inconsistency of leaving most initialisms and acronyms unpunctuated most of the time and I don’t think there are many instances where it is unclear whether “USA” or “us” is meant. But that is a matter of style, rather than grammar.

    ROFL/roffle may not have been the best example I could have given, but I have heard people say LOL in the way it would be pronounced were it a word.

    Ed Buckner: HON made me LOL.

    Emma: In BrE, “the BBC” refers to the corporation; if referring to a TV or radio station, there is no article (“the new show on BBC 2”).

  • Sally

    I’d be keen to see a further post about acronyms that have lost their capitalisation and what’s common usage. I edit a small community newspaper in Australia and have an army reserves major badger me every Anzac Day for not fully capitalising the term (ANZAC Day). I’ve showed him the government style manual I use but to no avail. To write it the way I do is “disrespectful”.

  • ApK

    The BBC thing is interesting. We in the US would say we say both “The new show on ABC” and “ABC bought a local production company” Despit the fact that it is “THE American Broadcasting Company.”

    Seems like the same UCLA anomaly.

    Maybe that’s just a Brit/US thing? Slightly off topic, I’ve always found it interesting that we say “I go to college” and Brits say “I go to University” but we would almost never use “University” without the article.

    Hm again.

  • Kathryn

    Mark–well, your explanation of GE/IBM made sense. . .until I started thinking about CSEA (the Civil Service Employees Association) and AP (the Associated Press). And, well, hm. While I agree I would not use a pronoun in front of NASA used as a word, I probably would use a pronoun in front of WASP used as a word. That distinction seems to be based on the fact that NASA is used as a name, and WASP is not. But I’d hesitate before running with that rule, because I suspect there’s a bunch of exceptions on either side of the line.

    I dunno. I like your rule, but I think Peter has a point–to some degree we use the exceptions almost as shibboleths, to demonstrate who does (and who does not) enjoy insider status.

  • Cecily

    ApK, in the UK, college and university are not the same. We go to various sorts of school from around age 5 until 16, 17 or 18. From about 18 you can go to university to study for a degree. Colleges of various sorts cater for those aged 16+ who are not studying for a degree, though the lines are blurring because some colleges run access courses that can count towards a degree. Then, just to complicated it, a few schools have “College” in their name.

    The whole ” ” issue is inconsistent. We “go to hospital” and are “in hospital”, the same with school/college/university (unless referring to a specific one) but go to the park/theatre/shops etc.

  • Mark Nichol

    Sally:

    I prescribe Prozac for Major ANZAC. A primary consideration in adhering to a style is consistency; simplification is another significant issue. To make sentimental or supposedly patriotic exceptions is to embark on a slippery slope. Stick to your guns, and hope he doesn’t brandish his.

  • Mark Nichol

    Mimi:

    You are correct. Which indefinite article to use depends on the pronunciation of the abbreviation, not that of the spelled-out form. “A FBI agent” should have to hand its badge over.

  • Mark Nichol

    Fitz:

    Your rule may be valid for British English, which I gather embraces initial-capping for all acronyms, but American English resists this style except for longer acronyms, such as my previous example of Nasdaq. It is a convenient distinction, though, that may help especially when a reader is confronted with an unfamiliar abbreviation.

  • Kathryn

    Sigh–what happens when you are thinking about two things at once. Now I’ve made myself look VERY stupid and ignorant–I meant “article” everywhere I used “pronoun” in that last post. *cringes*

  • HeatherB

    Are i.e. (id est) and e.g. (exempli gratia) changing as well?

  • Mark Nichol

    Heather:

    Some initialisms resist omission of periods, and often do so for good reason: In these cases, because the abbreviations are lowercase, ie and eg are, I think, too likely to be mistaken for typos.

  • Mark Nichol

    This just in:

    The newest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, the most popular and respected guideline for word treatment, has caught up with common sense (something the otherwise excellent resource very occasionally fails to do):

    “In works following Chicago’s primary recommendation of using two-letter postal codes for states (e.g., MT, not Mont., for Montana), US rather than U.S. is now preferred.

  • Emma

    Cecily: Thanks for the clarification on “BBC”/”the BBC”.

    I also realized that the initialisms to refer to universities often are not preceded by “the” (again, at least in American usage). I wonder what the consistency with this is, since in most cases I believe the “the before initialism” rule would apply. Would it just be considered on a case-by-case basis?

    Mark: I honestly would prefer that publications use the longer abbreviation (such as “Mont.” for “Montana”) rather than the two-letter postal code because some of the codes seem like they could potentially refer to many different states and I don’t know all fifty of them by heart. I presume many other people are in the same boat.

  • Mark Nichol

    Emma:

    As with many other aspects of postsecondary education, what is common practice is not necessary commonsensical. I will give a big virtual hug to anyone who can explain why we don’t precede initialisms of institutions of higher educations (or expressions like “U. of M.” — for the University of Michigan, for example) with the

    As for referring to states, the style for most book and magazine publishers is to spell state names out — the most elegant solution, most assuredly. But many publications follow the lead of newspapers, which traditionally abbreviate and elide with abandon, to save space — and, in the days of hot type, effort.

  • Pam Strickland

    The Associated Press style does not abbreviate Texas. It is simply Texas, not Tex.

  • Noah

    I think the article is wrong about initialism. I know that you need the definite article in front of “FBI” but that is not true for all cases. For example: UCLA. You never use an article in front of UCLA. You always say I went to UCLA, not the UCLA.

  • Genia Garibaldi

    Good discussion here about acronyms and initialisms. I stumbled on this site while looking for some guidance about whether it is acceptable to begin a sentence with an intialism. It is my understanding that it is okay to begin a sentence with an acronym. I’ll appreciate any enlightenment provided.

  • Nick

    SQL is an initialism (structured query language) usually pronounced as sequel. Not sure what that makes it!

  • M Leybra

    Mimi, how about in writing, follow the vowel rule, w/ ‘an’ preceding words beginning w/ a vowel, a,e,i,o,u, but ‘a’ preceding ‘F’ as in FBI, regardless of “aligning it w/ how FBI might be said out loud.” I disagree w/ Mark Nichol on this as well as writing U.S. as US. This short-shrift recently introduced, started w/ newer generation of newspaper article writers, under-educated in grammar & the influence of computer language, not to mention a whole generation of text messaging users who likely don’t place much importance on the study of grammar anymore unless they’re course of study will require it. Plus the world is overflowing today w/ initialisms & acronyms as never before. As well, the school system in this country is no longer what it once was when teachers took responsibility & personal pride in how well ‘their’ students were educated.

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