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Rules for Using Acronyms

Learn how to punctuate acronyms and capitalize familiar initialisms. As a rule, you will use them for abbreviation and clarity in writing.

ACRONYM RULES: In fact, you should be using acronyms and other ways to shorten phrases with caution and correctness.

When you write to communicate, the misuse of an acronym or an initialism is more likely to confuse than clarify.

How and When to Use Acronyms

The correct usage of acronyms offers writers an opportunity to make their writing clearer for the reader.

But, take note that misusing them may turn memos and letters into a confusing mess. You may accomplish nothing more than a page of argle-bargle.

Thus, the section on writing tips will help all authors and communicators use acronym rules and slang initialisms correctly in business and in letter writing.

You can bookmark this rules guide so you know when you can – and when you definitely should not – use word abbreviation rules for acronyms.

What is an Acronym?

A contemporary acronym is an abbreviated word formed by using the initial component letters of another name, word, or phrase. The acronym rule means they then get pronounced as if they are a word themselves.

We use shortened word components as individual letters such as in UNICEF. In fact, it actually stands for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. You can also use pieces of words or names such as in Benelux. This is a combination of Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

The Longest Acronym

In English, the longest acronym in present day use is a navy term ‘Adcomsubordcomphibspac‘. The exorbitant and lengthy ‘abbreviated’ acronym (which may need further abbreviation) stands for Administrative Command, Amphibious Forces, and Pacific Fleet Subordinate Command.

Can you imagine having to write that phrase multiple times in a 100-page document for your commanding officer?

Three-letter Acronyms (TLA)

The Correct Usage of Acronyms and InitialismsA three-letter acronym (TLA) or a three-letter abbreviation is a term (acronym, alphabetism, or initialism) which consists of three letters.

As a rule, they are the initial letters of the abbreviated words or phrase. You should write them in capital letters (upper case).

Most three-letter abbreviations are actually initialisms. That means all the letters get pronounced as the names of letters.

There are also some three letter acronyms pronounced as a word such as in the phrase ‘CAT’ scan – meaning computed axial tomography. ‘TLA’ is in fact a TLA and an example of a self-referencing definition. But, etc. and Mrs. are not three-letter acronyms.

Longest TLA (pronounced)

The longest three letter acronym ‘TLA’ possible to pronounce in English is ‘WWW’. It requires the use of nine (9) syllables when spoken ‘correctly’.

The usefulness of three letter acronyms comes from how much quicker it is to speak the abbreviation than the phrase which they represent.

Nonetheless, pronouncing ‘WWW’ in English requires the speaker to use three times as many syllables than the phrase itself – World Wide Web.

Because of this strange anomaly, ‘www’ is often abbreviated in speech to ‘dubdubdub’.

What is an Initialism?

Initialisms (in a nutshell) are shorter forms of words or phrases. The general rules for using initialisms can come in especially handy when you need to repeat the same word or phrase many times throughout the same piece of writing.

You should pronounce an initialism as a series of letters. An example would be ‘NATO’ which stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Writing initialisms in communication can save you a lot of time and keep your business documents from sounding repetitive and lengthy.

10 Rules for Using Acronyms and Initialisms

  1. Acronyms rules only apply to words or phrases that get repeated several times throughout a document.
  2. Write acronyms in uppercase capital letters (as a rule) LOL.
  3. To reduce confusion for the reader, and to retain their interest, avoid using unfamiliar acronyms in general. It is best to avoid them altogether in an introductory paragraph.
  4. Check to see if an established initialism or acronym already exists for the phrase before you make one up. Thus, use a casual initialism in text messages only.
  5. You can use a combination of upper and lower case letters if the acronym contains at least four letters and is pronounceable (e.g. Nasa).
  6. Full stop (periods) are not required in contemporary acronyms (Scuba).
  7. As a general rule of thumb, write out the full name when it is initially written. Then, follow that by writing the acronym in brackets (parenthesis). Repeat the bracket form if it gets used again later in the same passage.
  8. There is no need to write an explanation of most familiar or popular acronyms. It is fine and accepted to assume the readers will recognize them.
  9. Use the sound of the acronym to determine which article precedes the vowel (‘an’ in place of ‘a’ such as in ‘a Unicef’ issue’). This is because a noun requires an article written before it.
  10. It is rarely necessary to use the word ‘the’ before most acronyms when pronounced as a word (e.g. Interpol).

And Finally… TTFN

TTFN is an initialism which represents the colloquial valediction, ‘ta ta for now’. We use the friendly expression as an informal ‘goodbye’ or ‘goodbye for now’. But, it actually came to prominence during the Second World War in the United Kingdom.

Acronym Rules: Using Acronyms and Abbreviation in Written English