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Abbreviations: acronyms and initialisms

acronyms-abbreviationsBy Mary Morel | March 2016

There is a difference between an initialism and an acronym. Both are abbreviations, but an acronym forms a new word (Qantas) and an initialism doesn’t (FAQ). Sometimes the acronym becomes better known that the original term. For instance, not many people can remember that Qantas stands for ‘Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd’. Another example is scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus).

In practice, we refer to both acronyms and initialisms as acronyms.

The common convention if you want to use an acronym is to spell out the full term the first time and put the acronym in brackets. Then you can use the acronym for the rest of the document.

Australian Taxation Office (ATO)

All acronyms are abbreviated with capitals, but that does not mean the spelt-out form must have initial capitals. The normal rules of punctuation apply.

earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA)
environmental impact statement (EIS)

Acronyms are made plural simply by adding a lower case ‘s’ (no apostrophe).

 FAQs, EISs, MCs

Your choice of whether to use ‘a’ or ‘an’ with an acronym is based on the sound. If the first sound of the following word sounds like a vowel, use ‘an’.

 an MC, a BMW, a UNESCO committee

I often see people put quotation marks around the acronym in brackets (“FAQ”), but this is unnecessary. The acronym looks cleaner without them.

When should you use acronyms?

Acronyms are more useful in internal documents than on websites or in public documents.

They are useful when the acronym is better known than the full term. For instance, if you were writing an internal document for Australian business readers, you might choose not to spell out well-known acronyms such as ASIC and APRA (Australian Securities and Investments Commission and Australian Prudential Regulation Authority).

Acronyms are also useful when you use them several times in a document. They are less useful if you only use the acronym a few times.

Should you put acronyms and initialism in bold?

Reader’s question: Is it appropriate to put the first mention of abbreviations and appendices in bold. For example:

Widgets Pty Ltd (Widgets) is a leader in this field as shown in Appendix A.

Answer: This is a style issue so it’s your choice, but I don’t think bold is necessary. I also wouldn’t put Appendix A in bold.

Bold is useful to emphasise key words, but its overuse can be distracting.

Learn more

To learn more about punctuation, sign up for my online course, An A to Z of Punctuation, for A$39.



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