Of acronyms and shortened words: abbreviations explained

This week a client asked me, “Is it okay to write CEO?”

I was a bit taken aback because CEO is one of those ‘words’ that is better known by its shortened version than its elongated other – Chief Executive Officer.

Copy required for newspapers must maximise efficiency as space is premium and no editor will accommodate three words, when three letters will serve the same purpose adequately.

Some organisations and concepts have preferred usage in their abbreviated form than their full name or title such as Opec or Unesco, LED, HTML and radar.

You know exactly what they mean and how they apply, right? So why worry yourself by delving into the long form.

What is interesting however is how abbreviations are classed.  There are two main types: initialisms and acronyms.

Acronyms are shortenings of phrases that use, usually the first letter of each of the words, to make up a new word.

Some examples:

  • NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)
  • AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)
    OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries)
  • ASAP (as soon as possible)
  • Radar (radio detecting and ranging)
    Scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus)

In many style guides, it is recommended to write these contractions in word style, meaning to start with a capital letter and use lower case characters for the remaining.  Others prefer to use all capital letters, while some have preferences on a case by case basis.

Initialisms are abbreviations that take the initials of the word and each letter is pronounced separately such as FBI, DVD, BTW, IBM.

If a word is used in its shortened form such as Dr, Mrs, Prof, Wifi, biopic and takes neither the characteristics of an acronym nor an initialism, it is simply an abbreviation.

BTW (By the way) not all grammar sites and dictionaries agree; this is my view.

And if you are not confused enough, there’s also a word form called a backronym. Another time perhaps?

Words and Phrases: Of Mondegreens and Mishearings

No damn synchronicity: Synonyms and antonyms