Did you know that the words laser and radar are actually acronyms, not just plain words? LASER stands for light amplification by simulated emission of radiation and RADAR means radio detection and ranging.
What is an acronym?
Acronyms and initialisms are useful shorthand. They save you having to continually repeat long titles, especially in academic writing. That saves word count, too. According to Fowler, the term acronym was first used in 1943. It refers to a word which is formed from the first letters of other words and is pronounced as a single word. It is this latter feature which distinguishes an acronym from an initialism. One example of an acronym that you are likely to come across in everyday life is PIN (personal identification number). Another is NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Wikipedia has a full A to Z list.
Is an initialism different?
As the name suggests, an initialism is formed in exactly the same way as an acronym, with the first letter of each individual word. The difference is that the letters are pronounced separately. Common examples are the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) or the UN (United Nations). My own unscientific research suggests that if you apply a strict distinction between the two forms there are many more initialisms than acronyms. However, many people use the term acronym for both types.
What about abbreviations?
Other ways to shorten wordings include abbreviations. This is where the end of a word is omitted, such as assoc. (association). Another is contractions, which are formed by omitting some letters in the middle of a word, such as Dr (doctor). Some abbreviations have found their way into everyday language, with varying degrees of formality, whereas others are only understood by readers who are familiar with language used in a particular field. This highlights the importance of knowing your audience and using appropriate language.
Five tips for using abbreviations, initialisms and acronyms
If you are considering using abbreviations in your writing here are a few points to consider:
1. Always introduce the full wording the first time it is used and add the acronym or initialism in brackets.
2. Be consistent throughout the text.
3. Avoid using abbreviations in titles and headings.
4. Don’t forget that sometimes a short cut needs an article (the/a), such as the US, the UK.
5. Finally, the short cuts used in text-speak and social media conversations are not appropriate for academic writing, so keep btw, lol and the like for social interactions.