What to do about acronyms

Acronyms, those 2, 3, 4, and sometimes 5 letter short forms, are everywhere.

  • If we’re hungry we might get a BLT, or maybe some OJ and a PBJ sandwich, or maybe some KD.
  • At home we might switch on ESPN and watch an NHL game or an NBA game or an NFL game or anMLB game or the PGA tournament.
  • We worry about our kids having ADHD and we watch our BMI and restrict the amount of MSG we consume so we don’t end up in ICU, or in ER, or even worse, DOA. In business, our CEO will discuss our B2B strategy with FT and PT employees.
  • We may have a B2C service that is open 24/7 that our CFO claims is too inefficient so he asks theCTO to get the IT department to make it cost effective.
  • And let’s not even get started with our computer life where we surf the WWW using a URL to find a BLOG site or review our RSS feeds or go to a P2P site to listen to a new band.

But did you know that acronyms are a 20th Century thing. The first time the word acronym was defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was 1949. Boy have we come a long way since then.

The word acronym comes from the Greek word akros, meaning topmost or extreme, and onoma meaning name. So acronyms are extreme names. Using them is not as dangerous as some extreme sports, but we do need to be careful not to hurt our readers with them.

There are actually three distinct methods used to shorten common words and phrases: abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms.

Abbreviations are: a shortened form of a word or phrase used chiefly in writing to represent the complete form, such as Ave. for average.

Acronyms are: a word formed from the initial letters of a name, such as WAC for Women’s Army Corps, or by combining initial letters or parts of a series of words, such as radar for radio detecting and ranging.

Initialisms are: the initial letter(s) of a phrase such as HTML from HyperText Markup Language. Initialisms, sometimes called alphabetisms, are spoken by pronouncing each letter.


Some acronyms and abbreviations are so widely known that we can always assume our audience knows what they refer to, even if they don’t know their origin (e.g., IBM International Business Machines, ISBN International Standard Book Number). We can use these is our publications without providing a definition.

Some abbreviations and acronyms are common to a profession or specialty group (e.g., RAM Random Access Memory, AUTOEXEC.BAT AUTOmatically EXECuted BATch file). Here we can assume the audience is familiar with them, and if they are not, we can help them by defining it once and then using it throughout our publication.

Some abbreviations and acronyms are specific to a very small group or a single organization. We should avoid using such abbreviations and acronyms if there is any chance that people outside of these groupings will need to read our publication.

Sometimes we will use abbreviations or acronyms for words that are common to our publication. In this case we are trying to help our readers understand the content. A general rule-of-thumb is that if a term appears 3-times or less in our publications we should probably just use the term and not use the abbreviated form or an acronym.

Some are never spelled out

Some acronyms and abbreviations should never be spelled out. These include:

  • Mr.
  • Ms. (this has no spelled out form)
  • Mrs.
  • Dr.
  • A.M.
  • P.M.
  • B.C.
  • A.D.

Using Latin abbreviations

There are a number of Latin abbreviations, the more common of these are listed in the table below. Latin abbreviations should only be used in parenthetical text to shorten the amount of text within the parentheses.
Latin abbreviation meaning:

  • cf. compare
  • e.g., for example,
  • , etc. , and so forth
  • i.e., that is,
  • viz., namely,
  • vs. versus or against

Pluralizing Acronyms and Abbreviations

This is probably the biggest area where we make mistakes. So here are some rules to help us along the way.

Rule 1: Acronyms are pluralized by adding an s, not ‘s.


  • the three Rs
  • SOSs
  • all the YMCAs
  • CODs and IOUs

Rule 2: Abbreviations with one period are pluralized by adding an s before the period.


  • vol. pluralizes to vols.
  • ed. pluralizes to eds.
  • yr. pluralizes to yrs.

Rule 3: Abbreviations with more than one period are pluralized by adding ‘s.


  • M.A.’s
  • Ph.D.’s

And the exceptions

Not surprising, there are some exceptions to these rules. Here are some of these.

Exception 1: To pluralize the abbreviation for page, note, and line is formed by doubling the letter.


  • p. pluralizes to pp.
  • n. pluralizes to nn.
  • l. pluralizes to ll.

Exception 2: When adding an s to an abbreviation creates a different abbreviation, the abbreviation has an irregular plural.


  • Mr. pluralizes to Messrs.
  • Mrs. pluralizes to Mmes or Mmes.

Exception 3: Do not add an s to units of measure to pluralize them. Either use the singular form, or spell out the unit.


  • use 3 cm, not 3 cms
  • degrees, minutes, seconds

Style for Abbreviations and Acronyms

Here are some style guidelines to follow when using acronyms and abbreviations.

Guideline 1: Do not include periods in all-capital abbreviations unless the abbreviation is geographical or refers to a person.


  • UFO
  • P.E.I.

Guideline 2: Single-letter abbreviations are followed by a period.


  • E. (for East)

Guideline 3: Acronyms that are formed from the first letter of each word are all capitals.


  • NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)
  • CAT (Computerized Axial Tomography)
  • CD-ROM (Compact Disc Read-Only Memory)

Guideline 4: Acronyms formed from initial and other letters are in mixed case.


  • Dofasco (Dominion Foundries and Steel Corp)
  • Nabisco (National Biscuit Company)

Guideline 5: Acronyms that have become common words are not capitalized.


  • radar (radio detection and ranging)
  • scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus)
  • laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation)

Choosing the correct indefinite article

Sometime we may be uncertain about which indefinite article to use before an acronym or abbreviation. The most widely accept solution is to use the indefinite article that would be appropriate if we were speaking the statement out load. This means we need to know when these acronyms and abbreviations are spoken as individual letter, and as neologism (an invented word).


  • an NAACP position
  • a TV power station
  • an NFL team
  • a NATO meeting
  • a FORTRAN compiler

Articles by the way are little grammatical things that signal that a noun is about to appear. There are two types:

  • definite article: the
  • indefinite articles: a and an

Following these rules and guidelines when using acronyms and abbreviations will not only help our readers, but will also help us as writers to use them correctly and consistently.

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Last updated: October 10, 2009
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