Acronyms in Writing — A Tutorial

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on January 21, 2010 0 Comments

This was originally going to be a treatise on both acronyms and abbreviations, but the abbreviation portion turned out to have a lot more than I thought it would and, with acronyms, it was just too long for one post. Here, then, is a discussion of acronyms, to be followed in a week or so by abbreviations.


Before I get into the main discussion, I need to explain a term you might hear: initialism. This is nothing more than using the initial letter of words in a phrase, name, or title. This term can be applied to both acronyms and abbreviations because many of them do just that. Initialisms, typically, are capitalized and have no punctuation, although there are exceptions. NATO is an acronym, but is considered to be an initialism. When you’re talking about times, a.m. is an abbreviation, but is also considered to be an initialism. An example of a pure initialism is FBI because it cannot be pronounced as a word, but is still considered to be an acronym.

What is an acronym?

Darn, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that because I’m not sure I can actually tell you.

Acronyms and abbreviations are different ways of writing either a word or phrase in a short manner. All the sources I checked agree that there is a difference between the two and that’s where the agreement ended.

Traditionally an acronym was a word formed from the first (one or two) letters of a phrase, name, or title. Such things could be read as a word and not as individual letters. Some of the best known are: radar (RAdio Detecting And Ranging), sonar ( SOund NAvigation Ranging), scuba (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), and FUBAR (Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition). (Yes, as a Marine I have a different word I use for the “F” in that last example.)

All of these share the trait of being able to be read as words. Again, traditionally, acronyms were all capitalized, but you might notice, above, that the first three were lower case. When I learned them, years ago, they were capitalized, but it seems that usage has changed them and they are no longer capitalized. In that case, you can’t say that acronyms are always capitalized. (More on that later.)

The only constant I can determine is that, today, acronyms are never punctuated.

[For the record, those cute little stories that go around the Internet regarding the origins of “Store High In Transit” and “Fornication Under Consent of King” are just that -- stories. Both those words appeared in writing, as regular words, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Acronyms were almost never used prior to the twentieth century.]

Now that you have no clear idea what an acronym really is, I’m going to give you a few rules for using them.

Do you capitalize an acronym or not?

Got a coin in your pocket? I realize that’s a flippant answer, but it’s the best I can do. In the intro I mentioned some acronyms that are not capitalized: sonar, radar, and scuba. There are two reasons I can think of that might explain that.

First is that, over the years, they have become regular parts of speech. That is a particularly powerful argument if you consider that laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) has spawned the verb “lase” meaning to emit coherent light.

Second, the individual words that make up those acronyms are not proper nouns. If that is the primary reason, then NATO is capitalized because each of the words in it is capitalized. The same would be true of NAACP, NAFTA, and NCAA.

Without listing thousands of the silly things, I can only advise you to keep your dictionary handy when you have to write an acronym.

As an aside, I’ll point out that the print media has been using, for several years, SMALL CAPS for acronyms, perhaps because they seem to blend into the overall text better that way.

How do you use an acronym in text?

All guides agree on two things. First, if it’s something that is so widespread that nobody can mistake it, just use it. NATO, scuba, radar, laser, and sonar are examples. The only time you’d spell out the meaning is if that entity is the subject of your discussion. For instance, if you were writing an article on scuba equipment, you might start with something such as this: Today I’m going to discuss the development of the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA).

Second, you always spell out the phrase the first time you use it and can then use the acronym in subsequent references. Here’s where different guides disagree on how to do it.

The Chicago Manual of Style says to set off the acronym in parentheses. (My preference.)

The programmer used Disk Operating System (DOS) to complete the task. He had some problems because DOS wasn’t compatible with his machine.

Other style guides recommend commas.

The programmer used Disk Operating System, DOS, to complete the task. He had some problems because DOS wasn’t compatible with his machine.

The AP style guide eschews both of these and says to use the whole term the first time and the acronym after that.

The programmer used Disk Operating System to complete the task. He had some problems because DOS wasn’t compatible with his machine.

(I don’t have a real problem with this last one unless the first and second usages are several pages/paragraphs apart. It might cause the reader to have to refer back to figure out what’s being said.)

How do you match verb agreement if you’re using an acronym as a noun?

When used as a noun, acronyms are considered to be singular, thus you always use a singular verb.

  • DOS has some capabilities that Windows doesn’t.
  • Sonar detects sound waves.
  • The FBI was in charge of the investigation.

Do I use “a” or “an” before an acronym?

That depends on the initial sound. Using FBI as an example, you need to consider that we can’t say that as a word, so we pronounce the individual letters (eff-bee-eye). The first sound is “eff” and that requires “an” so we write “an FBI agent.”

NATO is read as “natoh” so we write “a NATO member.”

There are some acronyms that can be pronounced either way. An example is URL (Uniform/Universal Resource Locator). Some people consider it as a word, sounding similar to “earl.” Others consider it to be three letters (you-are-ell). How you write it depends on how you pronounce it. If you say “earl,” you would use “an URL.” If you think of it as three letters, it would be “a URL.”

Punctuation in an acronym?

It seems that standards have changed over the years. When it was first formed, the N.A.A.C.P. was written as I show it here. Over the years the periods disappeared and that seems to be the case in all acronyms today. (Yes, any time I generalize I risk having my mistake thrown back in my face. I can’t think of any acronyms that have retained their punctuation, but if there are any, I apologize to them.)

Final Thoughts

That is all I could come up with on this topic. Please remember that I am not trying to set myself up as the ultimate expert in this subject, but am trying to present the different thoughts that can be found in various sources. How you handle individual cases is up to you and, I can only stress that consistency is important. The odds are, if you screw up something, nobody will notice if you screw it up the same way every time.

Good writing.

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