Acronym or Abbreviation?

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As a guy who offers services to homeschoolers, I spend lots of weekends in the spring and summer at homeschool conventions. Two of my favorites are the ones in Virginia and Illinois. The volunteers who run those shows are particularly friendly toward speakers like me. I feel like a VIP when I go there.

The organizations that sponsor these events are the Home Educators Association of Virginia and Illinois Christian Home Educators. Like most organizations, they go by their initials: HEAV and ICHE. The leaders of both groups speak of themselves by the initials (AYTCH-EE-AY-VEE and EYE-SEE-AYTCH-EE). They fervently (and understandably) discourage thinking of their initials as an acronym (HEAVE and ITCHY).

As hard as they try, however, ordinary folks tend to speak of them as heave and itchy. Go ahead and giggle.

Strictly speaking, there is a difference between an abbreviation and an acronym. Both are made from the initial letters of the words that make up the title, but an acronym is pronounced as a single word. Thus, FBI and USA are abbreviations and NASA and SCOTUS are acronyms. The board members of HEAV and ICHE insist that their names are abbreviations, while the rest of us see them as acronyms (acronyms that evoke either unpleasant images, juvenile amusement, or both).

Most people don’t bother with this distinction, by the way. People tend to use acronym more broadly, applying it to simple abbreviations like CIA or HBO. In fact, still others consider an acronym to be a type of abbreviation and refer to abbreviations that are not pronounced as a word initialisms.

So, it’s a bit muddy. I like the idea of using acronym to mean abbreviations that are pronounced as a word. I’ll stick to that. You can do what you like. ūüôā

Common Abbreviations/Initialisms:

CIA, FBI, OMG, LOL, FYI, NCAA, NAACP, NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL, HTML, IBM, GM, HBO, ISP, DVD, PBS, UN,

Common Acronyms:

NASA, SCOTUS, SCUBA, SONAR, RADAR, NABISCO, AIDS, NATO, OPEC, AWOL, TASER, ZIP Code

And Also This

Did you know that the Patriot Act is an acronym? Some refer to it as a backronym–meaning the abbreviation was chosen first, and the words created later to fit the acronym. The full name of the Patriot Act, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2001, is the USA PATRIOT Act. It stands for¬†“Uniting and¬†Strengthening¬†America by¬†Providing¬†Appropriate¬†Tools¬†Required to¬†Intercept and¬†Obstruct¬†Terrorism Act of 2001.” Sheesh.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. joy
    joy08-01-2015

    Thanks for the clarifications. I thought all the while that abbreviations have period after each letter like F.B.I. and an acronym doesn’t have periods.

  2. Merri Larsen Bryant
    Merri Larsen Bryant07-02-2015

    As a board member of PEACHY and GRAPE homeschool groups, I am all about the charm of the acronym. I daresay the words could be switched about a bit – instead of HEAVE, how about VACHE (said with a British flair). Let’s replace ICHE with CHEL (say this with a French lilt). Ta Dah!

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