Subtle Distinctions: Abbreviation versus acronym

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Lawyers should possess semantic exactitude- we should appreciate subtle distinctions between words or expressions that look or sound alike.

In this issue, we explain the difference between an abbreviation and an acronym.

An abbreviation is “the shortened form of a written word or phrase used in place of the whole.” (Merriam-Webster).

AMCON, AU, UK, and USA are abbreviations for Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria, African Union, United Kingdom, and United States of America, respectively.

An acronym is an abbreviation pronounceable as a word. An acronym is typically formed from the first letters of each (main) word in a phrase. All acronyms are abbreviations, but not all abbreviations are acronyms. Some acronyms evolve into words, no longer merely pronounceable as words.

AMCON is an acronym because you can say it as a word (without mentioning the component letters). AU, UK, and USA are not acronyms—you have to say each letter. Merriam-Webster erroneously lists FBI as an acronym; it’s not.

CEO is abbreviation for Chief Executive Officer. CEO, the abbreviation for Chief Executive Officer, is not an acronym—it’s not pronounceable as a word: you have to say each letter.

Sonar is the acronym for sound navigation and ranging.

Because they are pronounceable as words and formed from the first letters of the constitutive words, AIDS and NATO are acronyms (for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation).

And because they are not pronounceable as words (you have to say each individual letter), AU, NYPD, and UN are not acronyms—they are abbreviations for African Union, New York Police Department, and United Nations.

Laser is the acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, but the words by and of have not contributed their initial letters to the acronym.

Acronyms do not take full stops. Write AIDS not A.I.D.S. Strictly, abbreviations that are not acronyms need full stops, but you can dispense with full stops when writing well-known abbreviations with all capitals. So write AU instead of A.U., though both are correct. Prefer NWLR to N.W.L.R. for Nigerian Weekly Law Reports. USA is better than U.S.A for United States of America.

To pluralize an abbreviation or acronym, do not add an apostrophe before the s.

Wrong: 15 NGO’s were invited to bid for the rural health fund.
Correct: 15 NGOs were invited to bid for the rural health fund

In American English Dr., Mr., and Mrs. take full stops, but not in British English. Our dialect of English in Nigeria is British, so write Dr, Mr, and Mrs, without full stops. The v in case titles should not take a full stop: Stabilini Visinoni v Federal Board of Inland Revenue. And it’s v, not vs.