WNW: Abbreviations, Acronyms, Initialisms, & Monograms

Weeks (months?) ago, I pasted a note from Twitter to remind myself to do this post. I'm pretty sure the suggestion came from TJ Bronley, and here I am, finally getting around to answering his request.

For this week's Word Nerd Wednesday: What is the difference between acronyms, monograms, and abbreviations?

(I'm adding initialisms to the list; you'll see why.)

First off, let's look at what an abbreviation is.

An abbreviation is simply a shortening of a word or phrase using components of that word or phrase. Some abbreviations use a period at the end, but not all require one.

Examples of abbreviations:
  • Quart = qt
  • Minute = min
  • Doctor = Dr.
  • Mister = Mr.
  • Et cetera = etc.
  • International Police = Interpol*
  • AM, PM
  • BC, AD

The last two on that list are so common that we've almost forgotten what they stand for (ante meridiem/post meridiem, meaning before and after noon, and Before Christ/Anno Domini, meaning in the year of our Lord).

Here are some modern abbreviations that developed from e-mail and texting. (This list could go on forever, but I'll keep it short.)
  • FWIW (For what it's worth)
  • IMO (In my opinion)
  • LOL (Laughing out loud) 
We use abbreviations for all kinds of things, including the United States (the US) and the group of countries that comprise the United Kingdom (the UK). 

Acronyms are a type of abbreviation. They typically use the initial letters of a phrase or name and (here's the important part) acronyms can be pronounced as a word. Some acronyms are spelled out as all caps. Others use periods between the letters, and some are entirely lowercase. Check your style guide to know how to write one out. Examples of acronyms:
  • NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)
  • laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation)
  • AIDS (autoimmune-deficiency syndrome)
  • scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus)
  • CD-ROM (compact disc read-only memory)
That last one mixes things up a bit, as only the second part (ROM) is pronounced as a word. We still say the letters separately on CD, of course.

Initialisms are similar to acronyms. They're also a type of abbreviation. Like acronyms, they use the first letters, but the big difference is that initialisms aren't pronounced as words

Many initialisms are abbreviations for organizations, such as television stations, government entities, or universities. Examples of initialisms:
  • FBI
  • CIA
  • NBC
  • FCC
  • BYU 
Tip: If you don't say it like a word, it's just a regular abbreviation or an initialism, not an acronym.

RAS Syndrome
This is a silly name for something that crops up a lot because of how often we use abbreviations. RAS is an abbreviation of Redundant Acronym Syndrome. Say the full name (with syndrome at the end), and we've got a repetitive phrase with RAS Syndrome in action: Redundant Acronym Syndrome Syndrome.

Silly, yes, but this kind of thing really does show up all the time. I bet you've heard people talk about a PIN Number, when the N in PIN already means number, so they're saying, Personal Identification Number Number. 

Or what about a screen's LCD display? We don't need that last word, because then we're saying liquid crystal display display.

Monograms are another animal altogether. Unlike the other terms we've talked about, they aren't a type of abbreviation. Instead, monograms are symbols or logos with one or more letters made into a single image. Monograms were often used as symbols of a monarch. Today we see them a lot in corporate and school logos. They aren't words at all, just images that tell the viewer instantly who or what it stands for.

An example: For many years during her talk-show period, Oprah used a big O with a specific font to symbolize her name and brand. We still see it prominently on her magazine today.

There you have it! If you have suggestions for future Word Nerd Wednesdays, drop me a line on Twitter. You can find me here: @AnnetteLyon.

*I believe InterPol technically has a longer name, but I'm not doing the research on that one today. 


T.J. said…
Thank you! I was mixing up initialisms as monograms. Very good Word Nerd topic! And most people will still confuse them.
Jordan McCollum said…
Yay WNW!

I've found that there's actually some disagreement among dictionaries about initialism vs. acronym.

Wikipedia summarizes the debate:

Although the term acronym is widely used to refer to any abbreviation formed from initial letters, some dictionaries define acronym to mean "a word" in its original sense, while some others include additional senses attributing to acronym the same meaning as that of initialism. The distinction, when made, hinges on whether the abbreviation is pronounced as a word, or as a string of letters. In such cases, examples found in dictionaries include NATO /ˈneɪtoʊ/, scuba /ˈskuːbə/, and radar /ˈreɪdɑr/ for acronyms, and FBI /ˌɛfˌbiːˈaɪ/ and HTML /ˌeɪtʃˌtiːˌɛmˈɛl/ for initialisms. . . .

I appeal to the English Academy to . . . oh wait. . . .
Annette Lyon said…
Nothing in English is ever simple and clear cut, is it, Jordan? :)

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