Abbreviations vs. Acronyms: Is There a Difference?

Bellingham, Wash., County Council member Rud Browne wants to make local government easier to understand. Toward that end, he put forth a suggestion about how “acronyms” should be expressed in county documents.

As reported in the July 26 Bellingham Herald,

“An acronym, to be clear, is a word or set of letters created from the initial letters of the main words in a name or phrase, such as FBI for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Kudos to Councilman Browne for the proposal but not necessarily to the newspaper for its definition of acronym.

Just weeks ago, I posted on my Ruthless Editor website a column on abbreviations and acronyms. Here’s the short version: An acronym is a word formed by the first letter (or sometimes first couple of letters) of a series of words. Here are two examples:

  • laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation)
  • OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)

An abbreviation is a shortened form of a word or name, but each letter is enunciated separately:

  • FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)
  • EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)

Anyone who works in government or a large organization probably deals with an alphabet soup of abbreviations and acronyms daily. Wouldn’t it be great if all human resource departments made available to staff members — especially new hires — a list of that entity’s terms in both the short and the long form.

How does your organization measure up?

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)