If you’ve lived or worked around Americans, you know their English is full of shortened ways to say things. You might believe this is because Americans are consumed with saving time. But in fact, all languages have shorter, more efficient ways of saying things when they want to. Because human minds work more quickly than their tongues, speakers are always looking for ways to get out more information with fewer syllables.
Three ways of doing this in English are abbreviations, initialisms, and acronyms. Because these three types are often confused, let’s do a quick review.
Abbreviations are a shortened form of the entire expression.
• TV – television
• op-ed – opinion-editorial
• Cal Tech – California Technological University
Initialisms are pronounced one letter at a time. Note that the names of the letters tend to link together as they’re pronounced, with stress falling on the last letter.
• USA – United States of America
• TGIF – Thank God It’s Friday
• m.p.h. – miles per hour
Acronyms are said as one word.
• NATO – North Atlantic Treaty Organization
• scuba – self-contained underwater breathing apparatus
• NASA – National Space & Aeronautics Administration
For my international friends, you should know that many Americans don’t recognize the distinction. They often call all three “abbreviations” when the expressions may be acronyms or initialisms. If that happens, don’t worry; just consider yourself smarter now than most of your American friends and co-workers.