Acronyms vs. Abbreviations

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Sun Feb 19 20:03:34 UTC 2006

I'm with you, Margaret.  Real sticklers might distinguish NFL, NBA, etc. as "initialisms."

  When I learned this stuff as a young Piltdown man, an acronym was a pronounceable "word," and an abbreviation was not. I always thought that was a pretty simple rule.  Latterly, however, the distinction has begun to fuzz.


Margaret Lee <mlee303 at YAHOO.COM> wrote:
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Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Margaret Lee
Subject: Acronyms vs. Abbreviations

Can anyone explain the _real_ difference (if there is one) between acronyms and abbreviations. The _Introduction to Language_ text by Fromkin and Rodman defines acronyms as "words derived from the initials of several words," with examples such as NASA and UNICEF.

However, they also say that "when the string of letters cannot be easily prononced as a word, the acronym is produced by sounding out each letter," with examples such as NFL and UCLA. I always thought that if they could not be pronounced as words, they were just abbreviations, not acronyms. In other words, my thinking is, all acronyms are abbreviations, but not all abbreviations are acronyms. In _The American Heritage Dictionary_, 'USMC' , for example, is listed as the *abbreviation* (not acronym) for United States Marine Corps. Should/can the two be used interchangeably?
Any thoughts on this?

Margaret Lee

Margaret G. Lee, Ph.D.
Professor of English & Linguistics
and University Editor
Department of English
Hampton University, Hampton, VA 23668
margaret.lee at or mlee303 at


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