Using acronyms

Acronyms are words formed from a series of initial letters or parts of other words: Such as:

IBM, BBC, Unesco, WHO, Anzac, laser, radar

Acronyms can make text simpler, easier to read and understand – life would be harder if you had to write light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation every time you  refer to a laser.

Spell an acronym out in full the first time you use it unless you are writing for a specialist audience and the term is instantly familiar. I prefer to write the full term, followed by the acronym thus:

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

Others like to write the acronym, followed by its full title in brackets. Both are equally correct, it is  a matter of editorial style.

If an acronym is confusing, don’t use it.

Some style guides allow acronyms written with full stops (or periods) between each letter or segment. I disagree.

Likewise, there are those who think acronyms should always be written in capital letters. Again I disagree. In both cases the result is both inelegant and distracting.

You’ll notice in the examples above, I’ve written some acronyms in capitals, some with an initial capital and some in lower case. Here’s why:

  • When you pronounce the acronym as a string of letters, ie eye, bee, emm for IBM the computer company, write the word in capitals. Some people call this type of acronym initialism.
  • If the acronym is a word and spoken as a word, then treat it as a normal word with an initial capital if it is a proper noun. Otherwise with a lower case initial letter.
  • Some American newspapers automatically use an initial capital followed by lower case if the acronym had more than six letters.

One difficulty is deciding whether to use a or an before an acronym. The important thing is how it sounds when spoken.

Certain acronyms were deliberately designed from the outset as pronounceable words. For example, Action on Smoking and Health (Ash).

The Economist Style Guide offers good advice:

…try not to repeat the abbreviation too often; so write the agency and not the IAEA, the Union and not the EU, to avoid splattering the page with capital letters. There is no need to give the initials of an organisation if it is not referred to again.

7 thoughts on “Using acronyms

  1. You have the initialism thing backward, actually. IBM is an initialism because it isn’t pronounced as a word, like an acronym normally would be.

  2. Hi Jerry

    You’re right. I’m terrible at sub-editing my own copy. The initialism sentence was added to the list in the wrong place. I’ve changed it.

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