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abbreviation vs. acronym vs. initialism

[language, English]

In writing, an abbreviation is any shortened form of a word or phrase.

Note, however, that there are types of abbreviations; the most common being acronyms and intialisms.

  • acronym - (a type of abbreviation)
    A word formed from the initial parts (letters OR syllables OR arbitrary parts) of a name.
    Examples: NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)

  • initialism - (a type of abbreviation)
    A group of initial letters used as an abbreviation for a name or expression, each letter being pronounced separately.
    For example, "BBC" (British Broadcasting Corporation), or "PBS" (Public Broadcasting System).

The key difference between an acronym and an initialism is that an acronym forms a new word, while an initalism does not.
For example, you say "nay-to" for NATO; this means you are saying a word, as opposed to saying each letter (ehn-ay-tee-oh).
So "NATO" is an acronym. But "U.K." is an intialism for United Kindom: you say each letter individually (you don't say "yuk", so you know it's not a word). Also, the periods are a dead-giveaway that's it's an intialism...

There are other types of abbreviations as well. Consider, for example, the truncation....

  • truncation - (a type of abbreviation)
    An abbreviation of a word consisting only of the first part of the word.
    Most often used in a context (such as for mail) where certain words must be written (and read) repetitively.
    Examples: Tues. = Tuesday; Dec. = December; Minn. = Minnesota; Eur = Europe, European

So, here's your first test: "HTML": abbreviation, acronym, or initialism?

Well, it is an abbreviation, because it's a shortened form of "Hyper-Text Markup Language".
But it's not an acronym, because it's not a word! (You can tell, because you don't say "heh-teh-mehl"; you say "aych-tee-ehm-ehl".)
And it is, as you may have guessed, an intialism, for the same reason it's not an acronym (you pronounce each letter separately).

Update: I saw a question online recently where someone was wondering if 'initialism' is a "real word." While its current use (as a type of abbreviation) may be recent, the word has been around for a long time. Here is a dated and confirmed use from the Oxford English Dictionary [1] (under the entry for "Initialize"):
initialism, the use of initials; a significative group of initial letters.
1899 R. Thoma in N. & Q. 9th Ser. III 103/1 "In my 'Handbook' I gave an initialism of Mr. Watt's, 'P.P.C.R.'"

(But in the interest of full disclosure, they did tag it as a 'nonce-wrd.')

Update: a theoretical styling of these elements using CSS for spoken (text-to-speech) web pages:

CLASS: abbreviation
- abbr.acronym {speak : normal;} (...say it as a word... )
- abbr.initialism {speak : spell-out;} (...say each letter seperately...)
- abbr.truncation {speak : spell-out;} (...say each letter seperately... )


How to implement 'hot tip' (mouseover) abbreviation definitions correctly
HTML is not an acronym... By Craig Saila
[1] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary,
 © Oxford University Press 1971

- Liberty Miller (first draft, 1999) ; Last updated February 2007