In short: abbreviations and acronyms

I picked this topic after stumbling across an arresting piece of branding copy (see below), and it struck me how little I know this corner of style. So let us journey together into a letter-strewn wilderness.

This much I do know:

  • An abbreviation is a bunch of capitals (GOP, NAACP, USA).
  • An acronym is a word you can pronounce formed from a bunch of capitals (radar, laser, scuba, NATO, WYSIWYG, FOMO). Indeed, acronym comes from the Greek words for ‘short name’.

A few style points deserve mention; if I’ve missed any, please shout.

1) How and when should you give the long form of an abbreviation or acronym?

For something that is well known in short form, you probably don’t need to spell it out. If you write that ‘East Germany joined NATO in 1990’, most readers will be familiar with that organization. But if you do choose to add the gloss, it should follow in brackets.

  • NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was founded in 1949.
  • The UN (United Nations) has brokered another ceasefire in Yemen.

If your ‘thing’ is best known in long form, but you want to refer to it several times, then give an abbreviation (after the long form) at first mention in your text.

  • Dunedin businessman James Mills founded the Union Steam Ship Company (USSCo) in 1875. As it steadily extended its tentacles through the Pacific trade routes, the USSCo came to be known as the ‘Southern Octopus’.

2) What about the definite article?

As per my NATO/UN examples above, acronyms representing bodies/institutions generally don’t need the definite article, whereas abbreviations do.

  • NATO; DARPA; PETA; SEATO.
  • The GOP; the UN; the NAACP; the WHO.

3) Uppercase or lowercase?

Some acronyms have entered the language to the point where we generally present them in lowercase, or at most with an initial capital. Some institutions deliberately style themselves so.
• Acas [Britain’s conciliation service]; radar; scuba.

There are some oddities, too, such as Anzac Day, which commemorates the sacrifices made by ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops.

Note, too, that some institutions style their conjunctions in lowercase — MoMA, DoJ. Others retain caps where you might not expect them, often out of recognition of their etymology: ABBA, for instance, or IKEA. (You know about the Swedish supergroup. As for IKEA, it was founded by Ingvar Kamprad, who grew up at Elmtaryd, near the village of Agunnaryd.)

And note, on that point, the various ways of glossing abbreviations and acronyms:

  • radar (radio detection and ranging); laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).
  • SaaS (software as a service).

On this last point, you can cobble together any abbreviation you like if it suits your purpose, but take care with initial capitals, as these are often unwarranted: software as a service is, after all, a generic term. Similarly:

  • RFP stands for request for proposal, not Request for Proposal.
  • My car’s AC performs air conditioning, not Air Conditioning.

Finally, I had promised that arresting piece of branding copy. See what you make of this:

Founded in 1914 as the American Institute of Graphic Arts, AIGA is now known simply as “AIGA, the professional association for design.” When referring to us, “AIGA” will do the trick—not “the American Institute of Graphic Arts,” not “the AIGA,” and not AIGA pronounced as a word (“Ay-guh” or “ā-gə”). You only need four little letters to spell one big design community. Say it with us now: A-I-G-A.

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