Editing Acronyms and Initialisms: The Almost Impossible Task of Keeping Them Consistent

by Ronnie Morris

Published at 2019-09-11

It has been considered a usual style to shorten words in order to save time or space for some time now. Some of us will remember acronyms and initialisms used by bands (XTC, AC/DC, KMFDM, R.E.M., U2,  the KLF, and the Notorious B.I.G.), by television shows (M.A.S.H, CHiPs, Magnum P.I., W.K.R.P in Cincinnati, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, E/R, the O.C.), for movies (C.H.U.D., E.T. The Extra-TerrestrialA.I. Artificial Intelligence), and even a certain celebrity named “Mr. T” who played a character named “B.A.” on a show called “The A-Team. 


In today’s fast-paced, multi-tasking society, it does seem that these kinds of abbreviations have somehow become even more common.


In business writing today, for example, terms like “CEO,” “MGMT,” or “NASDAQ” frequently appear. The same can be said for medical publications, with occasionally mysterious references like “MRI,” “EMT,” “ICU,” or “DOA.” In the tech sector, too, names of products and services have often been shortened to make them sound more catchy or easier to remember, like “CPU,” “DRM,” “HTML,” or “EULA.” And in the age of instant messaging and texting, the cultural lexicon has been expanded to include short forms like “LOL,” “OMG,” and “BRB.”


Although the intention behind these abbreviations is to enhance or speed up the reading and writing process, the result has sometimes been confusing, unintentionally funny, or even accidentally rude. In such cases, instead of making communication clearer, readers have had to work to make out the author’s meaning.



What Is an Abbreviation?

In the English language, there are a few terms that do fall under the umbrella of abbreviations, which is technically defined as any type of shortened form of a word or phrase, used to represent the whole, including words with their middle letters omitted, as with “Rd” for “road” or “Dr” for “Doctor.” In this blog, I want to focus on two types of abbreviations and on the distinctions between them: acronyms and initialisms, both of which have become much more widely used in recent years.



What Is an Acronym?

An acronym is a word formed from the initial components of a string of other words — the components of the acronym itself, after all, include “acro,” meaning “top, peak, or initial” and “nym,” meaning “a kind of word.” Acronyms can also be constructed by combining the first few letters of each word in a phrase, as in sonar, which uses parts of “sound navigation” and “imaging.” Importantly, however, as a result of a word formation process called blending, the borrowed letters spell out a new term, the letters of which are pronounced together, as a word. Some examples might include “NATO” (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), “NASA” (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), "SARS" (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and “SOCAN” (Society of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers of Canada), or GIF (graphics interchange format).



What Is an Initialism?

An initialism, by contrast, is constructed in the same way as an acronym, taking the initial letters of a string of words, but it is spoken one letter at a time rather than as a word.  Examples might include “UFO” (unidentified flying object), “IBM” (International Business Machines), “CBC” (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), “CFL” (Canadian Football League), or HTML (hypertext mark-up language).



Where Do They Come From?

Although the word “acronym” is often used in reference to any abbreviation formed from the initial letters of a series of words, some dictionaries and usage commentators differentiate between them. The term is generally only traced back as far as 1943 and the proliferation of military contractions like “AWOL” (absent without leave) resulting from the Second World War. Stephen Goranson at Duke University, however, has discovered its use as far back as 1940 in Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel Paris Gazette. Its German equivalent, Akronym, actually appears as far back as 1921. Words constructed in this manner in either language are actually much older, because they predate the term used to describe them: Walter P. Phillips’ telegraphic code abbreviated “the Supreme Court of the United States,” for example, as “SCOTUS” in 1879.


“Initialism” is a considerably older word — the earliest known use in print was in an 1844 discussion of SPQR, an abbreviation of the Latin phrase “Senatus Populusque Romanus” (the Senate and People of Rome) in The Christian’s Monthly Magazine and Universal Review. The Oxford English Dictionary places its first use somewhat later, in 1899, but notes the term was not in general use until 1965, which was considerably later than “acronym.” Like “acronym,” however, its use seems to predate the term itself by a long, long time. Everyone probably knows terms like A.M. (from ante meridiem, meaning “before noon") and P.M. (from Latin post meridiem, meaning “after noon”) that actually predate modern English. Although “initialism” is the older term, it hasn’t caught on in the way that “acronym” has. In fact, it actually gets flagged as an error by Microsoft Word’s spellcheck. According to Fowler's Modern English Usage, “The limitations of the term being not widely known to the general public, acronym is also often applied to abbreviations that are familiar but are not pronounceable as words.”



Editing the Plural Forms: The Confusing Part

Where it gets difficult — as I recently discovered — is when those abbreviations require pluralizing. There doesn’t seem to be any agreement among authorities about the correct way to go about it. Because acronyms and initialisms are considered proper nouns, their plurals are supposed to be formed by adding “s,” as in “URLs,” or “es” if it ends in an “s,” as in “SOSes.” The Modern Language Association and the American Psychological Association both take this approach.


This method can cause confusion, however, as it has been established in the case of single letters — adding an “s” to the letter “A,” for instance, would result in “As,” and adding an “s” to the letter “I” would result in “Is.” The intended meaning of sentences could easily become muddled, so it has become common to pluralize such constructions with the addition of “apostrophe +s,” as suggested by the The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, as in “A’s, B’s, and C’s” or “mind your p’s and q’s.” The result then would be constructions like “TV’s” or “VCR’s.”


Unfortunately, to many readers, that kind of construction exclusively symbolizes possession, which can cloud the intended meaning. The Chicago Manual of Style thus suggests including the apostrophe only when there are periods used in the abbreviation — as in “ATMs” or alternatively “A.T.M.'s” — although it is worth noting that the CMS also recommends such abbreviations not contain periods at all. Kate Turabian actually goes so far as to suggest that apostrophes be reserved for cases “when an abbreviation contains internal periods or both capital and lowercase letters,” which would mean that “DVDs” would be correct, but so would "Ph.D.'s."


There are further problems when the element of the acronym to be pluralized is not the last word in the construction. Members of Parliament, for example, should naturally be abbreviated “MsP,” but that looks decidedly odd compared to the more common “MPs.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, for example, looking at the baseball term “RBI” (runs batted in), says that “three RBIs” is correct.


There is little agreement among authorities, moreover, when one of the elements in an acronym or initialism is already plural, as in the case of “WMDs” (weapons of mass destruction), say. The problem seems to be that some readers read the letters of an abbreviation individually — “W-M-D” — while others read the expanded version of the term every time they see the abbreviation — so “WMD” registers as “weapons of mass destruction.” The Scientific Style and Format guide thus says “if the abbreviated term is itself a plural, do not add the ‘s’.” The manual of the American Medical Association, on the other hand, advocates adding that “s” to pluralize short forms of phrases like “activities of daily living,making them ADLs.” It is worth noting, however, that it does not make the same suggestion in the case of “ACS” (acute coronary syndromes), “YLD” (years living with disability), or “YPLL” (years of potential life lost). In a recent manuscript I edited, most sources I could find online were unequivocal that the tech term “OER” (open educational resources) does not take an “s” in the plural because “resources” is already plural, and yet there are plenty of occurrences of “OERs” on the internet.



Edit for Consistency: The Best Approach?

The wisest course of action, then, seems to be to define acronyms and initialisms on first reference in the body of the text you are editing, so it's clear to readers exactly what the letters mean and whether they represent singular or plural words. Whatever form of pluralization you choose for the abbreviation, you should use it consistently from then on. That means that if you choose, say, “OER” as the plural form of its abbreviation, the same document should probably have “CD” and “DVD” rather than “CDs” and “DVDs.”


Consistency is vital to clarity. If your choices make sense to readers, it will take far less time for them to figure out what your acronyms and initialisms actually mean. And saving time is supposed to be what abbreviations are all about.


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