Judy Nollet
White Plume Communications

writer, instructional designer, eLearning developer

Overcoming Initials Anxiety

Which of the following is an acronym?

  1. IBM
  2. NOW
  3. AARP
  4. All of the above

If you answered "d," you're wrong—but you're not alone. Many people use acronym when referring to any set of letters that stands for something else.

However, if you simply take the first letters from a string of words, such as turning International Business Machines into IBM, you get an initialism.

To create an acronym, those first letters (or first few letters) must form a word when put together. So the correct answer above is "b," because the initials of the National Organization for Women are pronounced as the word now.

In addition to taking over common words, acronyms sometimes create original terms, such as laser. That's right. Laser is the acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. (Now, of course, the word laser is so common that most don't bother to think about what it stands for.)

Whether dealing with an acronym, an initialism, or another form of abbreviation, there are times when the only thing uppercase letters create is confusion. Every industry and group seems to have its own comprehensive set of all-cap characters.

For example: In business, RBC might stand for regional business conference or the Royal Bank of Canada. In medicine, it refers to red blood cells or red blood count.

Because the same letters mean different things to different people, the general rule is to spell out what you mean the first time you abbreviate any word or phrase. Yet with hyperlinked text, you don't necessarily know when the reader will first encounter a term. That's when a pop-up explanation or a linked glossary comes in handy.

Still, it's likely that, at some point, you'll come across a set of letters you don't recognize and for which no explanation is provided. What to do? Here's the payoff if you've read (or even just scanned) this far:


That website can help you "find out what any acronym, abbreviation, or initialism stands for." Bookmark it today to keep from being SWATTED (stuck wondering about terms that elicit dumbfoundedness) tomorrow.

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Copyright Judy Nollet, White Plume Communications. 
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