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Abbreviations, Acronyms and Initialisms

There is an argument among linguists as to which language contains the most words. Though many, if not most contend that the undisputed winner is English, in truth, there is no single sensible answer to this question. Why this is so, is simple- it is impossible to count the number of words in English (or any language for that matter), because it is so hard to decide what counts as a word. Is dog one word, or two (a noun meaning 'a kind of animal', and a verb meaning 'to follow persistently')? If we count it as two, then shouldn't we also count inflections separately as well (i.e. dogs being the plural noun, dogs being the present tense of the verb). For that matter, is 'dog-tired' a word, or just two other words joined together? To make matters worse is hot dog really two words, since we might also find hot-dog or even hotdog?

If this weren't bad enough, it is also difficult to decide what counts as 'English'. What about medical and scientific terms . . . Latin words used in law . . . French words used in cooking . . . German words used in academic writing . . . or Japanese words used in martial arts? Do you count the Scottish dialect . . . slang . . . computer jargon? Complicating, if not exasperating, this whole issue is another class of words (or to be more precise 'word-like' words) referred to as abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms (also called 'alphabetisms') all of which represent shortened forms of many everyday (and not-so-everyday) words. Without doubt (and here linguists agree), if this latter category of 'word-like' words is included in the list of words, then English wins hands-down.

So what are abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms? In English, like all languages, many words and expressions are made simpler by writing (and sometimes speaking) them using a shortened form of those words or expressions. If we look more closely at these classes of 'words', then a few facts immediately become apparent. First, most people are aware of the word 'abbreviation'; some are also familiar with the term 'acronym'. Most people, however, have never come across the terms 'initialism' or 'alphabetism'. Second, most people do not differentiate initialisms from either acronyms or abbreviations. In fact and thirdly, most people (including many linguists) do not know the difference between an acronym, an abbreviation and an initialism for the simple reason there is no universal agreement on the precise definition of these terms. Regardless, the examples and definitions that follow are usually accepted by most as 'mostly' correct.

In order to understand the difference between these three terms, it is best to look at examples.

  • The following are abbreviations: Mr, Mrs, Ms, St., Ct., and Mt.
  • The following are initialisms: USA, PGA, BBC, NFL, HTML and CIA.
  • The following are acronyms: SCUBA, NATO, LASER, DINKY, OINKY and AIDS.

Abbreviations are pronounced like the full words they represent. So 'Mr.' is pronounced 'Mister', 'St.' is pronounced 'Street' (or 'Saint') and 'Ct.' is pronounced Court etc. In American English, basic abbreviations are usually followed by a period. In British English, Mr, Mrs and Ms are not followed by a period.

Initialisms (or alphabetisms) unlike abbreviations are pronounced one letter at a time. Examples of initialisms are USA, UK, PGA, AARP, IOU, etc.

Acronyms are abbreviated forms of expressions that contain several words that are always used together. Acronyms are usually created by combining the first letter of each word in the expression. True acronyms are always pronounced as if they were one word. Examples of acronyms are 'scuba' (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), 'laser' (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), etc.

Of course (and as might be expected) there are many examples of short 'word-like' words that do not conveniently fit into one category or another. Such 'words' as JPEG and CD ROM (each pronounced as a combination of letters and a 'word') or AAA and NAACP (pronounced 'Triple-A' and 'N double-A C P') defy categorization entirely.

So the next time you're asked how many words there are in the English language, you can be fairly certain the answer is OGK . . . 'only God knows'.

By Rob Jensky,
Director of Language Link School

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