An abbreviation, such as the acronym IATE, means any contracted or shortened form of a word or a phrase. However, abbreviation is the blanket term, not a synonym, for all shortened words and these come in different varieties. The practice of abbreviating words became increasingly convenient when complicated concepts and terms entered the language. In this age of modern technologies, it is common practice to use shortened forms in order to fit as much information as possible into a message with a limited amount of characters. Texting on electronic devices has spawned abbreviations and shorthand.
People have written shortened versions of a word or phrase for hundreds of years. During the middle ages, it was common to abbreviate Latin terms, such as e.g. and i.e. in order to save time and space. Writing was a luxury of the educated and literate. The writing material, parchment, was a costly commodity.
The pronunciation of the different types of abbreviations, such as acronyms or initialisms, often causes confusion. When do you pronounce every individual letter? When do you pronounce an abbreviation as one word? Let us dive into the world of abbreviations, initialisms, contractions, shortenings and acronyms to solve this riddle once and for all.
Initialisms and acronyms: what they have in common
Both initialisms and acronyms are formed by combining the first letter of each word in a longer phrase or name. They are most often used by people working within the same environment of field in business, education, industry or government. However, certain abbreviations might have different meanings to people. Furthermore, a hybrid exists, part acronym and part initialism, such as CD-ROM and JPEG.
What is an acronym?
An acronym is a specific type of abbreviation pronounced as one single word. It is composed of the first letters of a series of words. Here are a few examples:
- NATO – North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
- RADAR – radio detection and ranging
- PIN – personal identification number
- SIM – subscriber identification module
- NASA – National Aeronautical and Space Administration
- DOS – Disk Operating System
It is important to note that we don’t use full stops after each letter, as we treat them as words. Further, acronyms do not take the definite article, but initialisms do! Such as the UK, the EU and the BBC. There are a few set rules to keep in mind: acronyms with up to five letters are uppercased. Those consisting of six letters or more should normally be written with an initial capital followed by lower case.
Initialism or initial abbreviation: pronounce each letter individually
An initialism, also called alphabetism, is formed from the first letters of a group of words or phrase and each letter is pronounced separately. Here are a few examples of initialisms and their full forms:
- FBI – Federal Bureau of Investigation
- ASAP – as soon as possible
- CD – compact disc
- FAQ – frequently asked questions
- VAT – value added tax
- FYI – for your information
Contractions: missing letters in a word
There are two types of contractions that can be distinguished: one with and one without apostrophe. The apostrophe replaces the missing letter(s):
- he’s – he is
- they’d – they would
- don’t – do not
The other variant compresses a word and the interior of the term is removed:
- Dr – doctor
- govt – government
- St – Saint
- Mr – Mister
Abbreviations for people, titles and academic degrees
Titles and names of academic degrees are often shortened such as Mr, Mrs or PhD (doctor of philosophy) and MD (medical doctor). Further, entire names of famous people can also be abbreviated: JFK (John F Kennedy) or MLK (Martin Luther King).
Here are a few rules to keep in mind: in American English, title abbreviations are followed by a period; in British English, the full stop is omitted. Further, when an academic degree is used as a title and follows a proper name, it is set off by commas.
Shortenings: the beginning or end of the word has been omitted
We use shortenings, also known as clipped abbreviations, as real words and pronounce them as one word. Similar to truncation, but here you use either the middle or the end of a term and remove complete syllables. Some examples are:
- ad – advertisement
- app – application
- blog – weblog
- demo – demonstration
- phone – telephone
- fridge – refrigerator
- exam – examination
- Brit – Briton
- Fred – Frederick
- Tim – Timothy
Further, we also use stand-ins, i.e. truncation, and do not treat them as real words in some cases. These consist only of the first part of a word, deleting the end of it, and are used in writing. In speech, however, the full version of the word is articulated, such as Feb for February or Sat for Saturday.
What is the difference between the Latin i.e. and e.g.?
In scientific texts, Latin abbreviations such as i.e. and e.g. are commonly written and often confused. E.g. is short for the Latin exempli gratia, meaning for the sake of example or for example. You would use this in places where you would write “including”, followed by a list of one or more examples. Please note not to write etc. at the end of a sentence when you’ve used e.g.
I.e. is short for the Latin id est, meaning “that is to say” and would commonly be used to specify, explain or describe something that has been referred to. In English, you would write “in other words” or “that is”.
In addition to this, other types exist: Aphesis, Portmanteau and Logogram
Aphesis is casually spoken versions of words. Examples are: ‘cause or ‘cos (because) and ‘til (until). The portmanteau means the blending of two words such as Bollywood (Bombay and Hollywood) and the colloquial term chillax (chill and relax). Logograms are shortened forms and are unique, as the word becomes a sign symbol: % (percent) or @ (at).
The problem with the indefinite article
When using the indefinite article a/an before an abbreviation in which each individual letter is pronounced, the initial sound dictates the choice of article. For instance, normally “a” would precede the letter “m”, but in the case of MP3, however, “an” would be used instead as the initial sound does not start with the nasal “m”.
Please note that some readers may not be familiar with an abbreviation. It is best to write the term out fully followed by the abbreviation in brackets. We hope this article helped to clarify the differences of abbreviations.
Internet slang, the so-called textese or textspeak, has not been included in the article.
IATE goes AUDIO provides short audio clips in different languages explaining IATE Terms of the Week in a clear and concise manner. The aim of this initiative is to make IATE terminology accessible to a wider audience.
This week, you can tune in to another IATE goes Audio feature: click below to listen to ‘Acronym’ explained in English.
Core. 2021. Acronyms. [ONLINE] Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/6303938.pdf. [Accessed 11 March 2021].
GFC Global. 2021. Abbreviations and acronyms. [ONLINE] Available at: https://edu.gcfglobal.org/en/grammar/abbreviations-and-acronyms/1/. [Accessed 11 March 2021].
Written by Victoria Milhan, Schuman Communication Trainee Terminology Coordination Unit. She holds master’s degrees in English Language (linguistics) and Medieval English Literature, Newer English Literature and Celtic Studies. Victoria is enrolled as a PhD student at Bonn University in Germany.