Do you know what the difference is between an abbreviation, an initialism, and an acronym? If the answer is “no,” there’s no need to worry. A lot of people use “abbreviation” and “acronym” interchangeably even though these words don’t mean the same thing. There are also a lot of people who have never heard the term “initialism,” so if you’re one of them, you’re not alone. Today we’re going to walk through the difference between these three terms so that you’re no longer in the dark about what they mean. Here we go!

Abbreviations are the easiest of the three types of words, so we’ll start with these. As we mentioned in our recent post on making abbreviations plural, abbreviations are shortened forms of words or phrases. For example, all of the following terms are abbreviations: “SEO” for “search engine optimization,” “NASA” for “National Aeronautics and Space Administration,” and “DNA” for “deoxyribonucleic acid.” Acronyms and initialisms are both types of abbreviations.

Abbreviations can generally take one of two forms: they can be acronyms or they can be initialisms.

Acronyms are abbreviations that are pronounced like words. That is, when we say an acronym out loud, we treat it like a word instead of like individual letters. For example, “NASA” is an acronym because we pronounce it like a word; we don’t say each letter individually. Here are some other examples of acronyms:

  • “NAFTA” (North American Free Trade Agreement)
  • “RAM” (random access memory)
  • “GIF” (graphics interchange format)

In comparison, initialisms are abbreviations that are pronounced as individual letters. That is, when we say an initialism out loud, we treat it like a set of separate letters instead of like a word. For example, “SEO” is an initialism because we pronounce each letter individually (“ess-ee-oh”); we don’t pronounce it like a single word (“see-oh”). Here are some other examples of initialisms:

  • “DNA” (deoxyribonucleic acid)
  • “CIA” (Central Intelligence Agency)
  • “WHO” (World Health Organization)

Need a trick to help you remember the difference between these words? Try this: “abbreviation” is the longest word of the three, so you can remember it as the large word that encompasses the two smaller words. Then, to remember the difference between “acronym” and “initialism,” think of how we pronounce a person’s initials. If we had to say George R. R. Martin’s initials out loud, we would say each letter individually (“gee-arr-arr-em”); we wouldn’t pronounce them as a single word (“germ”).  We pronounce initialisms the same way that we pronounce a person’s initials: by saying each letter individually.

In sum, acronyms and initialisms are both types of abbreviations. They differ, though, in the way that we pronounce them when saying them out loud.

Have any lingering questions about acronyms and initialisms? Leave us a note in our comments section below and we’ll get in touch. Your question may even inspire one of our upcoming posts!

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Acronyms vs. initialisms
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