Acronym vs. Abbreviation: What’s the Difference?

It has all to do with how you're shortening any particular word or phrase.

ICYMI (in case you missed it), acronyms and abbreviations are ways to shorten phrases and ideas both in normal speech and through texting and email. But a common FAQ (frequently asked question) is explaining the nuanced difference between the two ways to save breath—which we do, below. After, brush up on the difference between effect and affect.

What’s the difference between an acronym and an abbreviation?

An acronym is a way of shortening a phrase by combining the first letter of each word in the phrase to form a new pronounceable word. A common acronym is NASA, which stands for National Aeronautical and Space Administration. To form the acronym NASA, you take the first letter of each of the words in the phrase “National Aeronautical and Space Administration” and then pronounce the collection of letters as a new word, which is why we pronounce the term as “nah-suh” and not the individual letters “n” “a” “s” “a.”

An abbreviation, on the other hand, is also a way to shorten a phrase but with a slight difference. In general, abbreviations tend to shorten the word or phrase being referenced by literally shortening the word but not creating a new one. So for example, shortening the word “avenue” to “ave.” is an abbreviation rather than an acronym because “ave.” does not form a new enunciable word. Similarly, shortening the names of the months, such as “December” to “Dec.” is also an abbreviation because when reading “Dec.” out loud, you would just say the full term “December.” Make sure you know these 14 grammar myths your English teacher lied to you about.

Seems simple enough, right? However, as with everything, there’s a slight twist on this grammatical question. Which brings us to our next point…

What’s an initialism?

OMG (oh my god), have you never heard of the term initialism? It’s OK (okay), not everybody has. An initialism is another type of word and phrase shortening that is fairly similar to acronyms. Initialisms also use the first letter of each word in the phrase, but instead of combining the letters to form a new word, like NASA, you pronounce each letter individually. An example of an initialism is the term VIP, which stands for “very important person.” When saying VIP out loud, you don’t say “vip” but rather each individual letter, “v” “i” “p,” making it an initialism. These are 41 little grammar rules that will make you sound smarter.

Now, the real confusion comes when determining whether initialisms fall under acronyms or abbreviations. Since initialisms seem more similar to acronyms, many people say that acronyms are a blanket term that also covers initialisms, as points out. However, other sources disagree. Merriam-Webster is one such source that defines initialism as “an abbreviation formed from initial letters.” Moral of the story? Don’t get too bogged down on whether someone defines an initialism as an acronym or abbreviation. At the end of the day, as long as you know the main differences between the three you’ll be seen as a grammar genius. And IMO (in my opinion), that’s what really matters. Here are 11 other spelling and grammar rules no one can agree on.


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Lucie Turkel
Lucie Turkel is a cultural journalist, researcher, and digital producer specializing in social justice, history, and lifestyle pieces. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society's Key Reporter journal, the University of Connecticut Daily Campus, and UConn Communications.