Formatting Tip & Grammar: Acronyms & Initialisms

Posted December 10, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Formatting Tips, Self-Editing, Writing

Revised as of:
27 Dec 2016

And you thought acronyms were the last word…! Yeah, I didn’t know about initialisms either. Obviously, there are a lot of people out there with too much time on their hands and way too OCD! Worse than me even!

It is fun to learn new things, and no, you don’t really have to worry if your “acronym” is really an initialism. Both are treated the same way. The only important rule is in the rule below.

The Grammar Explanation is mostly an FYI in case someone throws some weird term like recursive backronym at you…

Formatting Tips and Grammar Explanations sometimes…

…combine as it does here on this post, “Acronyms & Initialisms”. Formatting Tips explores capitalization, italicization, what should be in quotes (and what kind of quotes!), when words should be spelled out and what can be abbreviated, the proper styling for Latin names of plants, the proper formatting and usage of titles and more. Grammar Explanations is an analysis of the system and structure of English.

It started as research as part of my editing aspect and has evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this style tip with friends by tweeting it.

Acronyms & Initialisms
Credit to: All Acronyms

Just for fun, watch John Green’s short video on acronyms and initialisms.

Formatting, Grammar
Definition: An abbreviation formed from the initial components in a phrase or a word. Usually these components are the initial letters or parts of words or names of a name, title, organization, etc.

Full-Name Rule: If you intend to abbreviate a phrase or the name of an organization, company, or government entity, use the full name the first time you use it in each chapter and follow it with the abbreviation in parentheses. After that, you can use the acronym without any further explanation in that chapter.


Acronym Initialism
Definition: Pronounceable as a word. Definition: Pronounced by its initials.

A.k.a., alphabetism, initial acronym, letter acronym

NASA National Aeronautics and Space Administration
radar Radio Detection And Ranging
FEMA Federal Emergency Management Agency
ICE Immigration and Customs Enforcement
AJAX Asynchronous Javascript and XML
LASER Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation
OSHA Occupational Health and Safety Act
IKEA Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd
MoMA Museum of Modern Art
EFT Electronic Funds Transfer
DoD Department of Defense
NHL National Hockey League
WWW World Wide Web
P&L profit & loss
ROFL Rolling on Floor Laughing
BYO Bring Your Own
APA American Psychological Association
USMC U.S. Marine Corps
Capitalizing Acronyms or Initialisms
ALL CAPS Rule: Acronyms and initialisms are usually in all-caps.

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Exceptions abound, of course; always check the individual company or dictionary being used to determine proper usage for an acronym about which you’re not sure.

The AP Style Guide rule is a good general guide, although it is not absolute:
Use all caps IF each letter of a company’s name is pronounced as a separate letter.

Acronym Exceptions (AP) Initialisms
lowercase The AP Style Guide rule is a good general guide, although it is not absolute:
Use only an initial cap if the acronym of the company is pronounced as a word.

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Acronym Initialisms
Style Exceptions to the Full-Name Rule
Rule: Some acronyms and initialisms are so well-known that spelling them out is not necessary. Verify other acronyms and initialisms by checking a reputable dictionary to see if they are listed as words.
Abbreviations that are widely known:

  • Institutions:
    • FBI, CIA, AT&T, UConn, MIT, UCLA, NATO
  • Countries:
    • U.S.A., U.K.
  • Corporations:
  • Famous people:
    • LBJ, FDR, JFK, MLK
  • Very familiar objects:
    • TV, VCR, CD-ROM

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary:

Acronyms as Grammar
Apronym Definition: A special kind of acronym where the initials spell out a word or phrase relevant to the expanded version.

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ACME A Company Manufacturing Encouragement
ALOETTE A Lovely Objective, Essence To Try, Everyone
AMTRAK Another Metro Train Rolls Along Keenly
AT&T Attention! Thervice Thaved!
BE Bankrupt Enterprise
BECHTEL Big Engineering Contracts Hardened “Threat-Ending” Line
BORDERS Books (Obviously), Records, DVDs, Even Refreshments Sold
PEPSICO People Employed Peddling Sugar In Carbonated Offerings
SEARS Stock Everything Americans Regard Salable

Definition and examples courtesy of Apronyms.

Backronym Definition: A newly created phrase to fit an already existing word, name, or acronym. It either creates a memorable name or is a fanciful explanation of a word’s origin.

If a backronym helps you remember the word acronym or backronym, then it is also a mnemonic.

A.k.a., bacronym, apronym, reverse acronym, retronym

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SPECTRE Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion
GROSS Get Rid of Slimy girlS
LISA Local Integrated Software Architecture
BASIC Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code
SOS Save Our Ship
Ford Fix Or Repair Daily
Spam Something Posing As Meat

Definition and examples from Oxford Dictionaries.

Anacronym Definition: A backronym that becomes more popular than the original acronym.

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snafu situation normal, all fucked-up
radar Radio Detection And Ranging

Definition and examples courtesy of NetLingo.

Pure Backronym Definition: The original word was not previously or commonly known as an acronym or abbreviation.

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acronym Acronyms Condense Representations Of Neologisms You Memorize

Because the word “acronym” itself is not an acronym, the phrase is a “pure” backronym (not a replacement backronym; NetLingo).

Recursive Backronym Definition: Recursive backronym – a backronym that refers to itself in the expression for which it stands.

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Acronym It Was… …and Became a Recursive Backronym
PHP Personal Home Page PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor
Replacement Backronym Definition: A phrase back-formed from an existing initialism or acronym that is originally an abbreviation with another meaning.

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Needs examples
Mnemonic Backronym Definition: They are replacement backronyms created for the purposes of education, simply making it easier for people to remember.

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ROY G. BIV red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet
GUMPS Gas-Undercarriage-Mixture-Propeller-Seatbelts
CAN SLIM Current earnings
Annual earnings
New product or service
Supply and demand
Leader or laggard?
Institutional sponsorship
Market Direction
Contrived Acronym Definition: An acronym deliberately designed to be especially apt for the thing being named by having a dual meaning or by borrowing the positive connotations of an existing word or to avoid a name considered undesirable.

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CAN SPAM Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing
CAPTCHA Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart
USA PATRIOT Act Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act
fcuk French Connection United Kingdom


Computer Literacy and Internet Technology
CCRAP (pronounced “see crap”) Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance (Party)

changed their name to “Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance”

Alles nur aus Liebe (All for Love)


Antonin Scalia School of Law

Antonin Scalia Law School



Team in Training
Euphonious Acronym Definition: An acronym to which letters are added or subtracted to produce a pronounceable word.

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laser Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation
radar Radio Detection And Ranging
Hybrid Acronym Definition: Has the features of both letter acronyms and syllable acronyms.

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Immigrant Acronym Definition: An acronym where foreign words are adopted into English.

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RSVP respondez-vous s’il vous plait
gulag Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey i kolonii
Gestapo GEheimSTAatsPOlizei (Secret State Police)
Internet Slang Definition: Informal initialisms and acronyms used as a phrase replacement on social media, websites, and text messages.

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LOL laugh out loud OMG omigod
IMO in my opinion BRB be right back
NSFW not safe for work ROFLMAO rolling on floor laughing my ass off

You can find a lot more examples at Internet Slang.

Macronym Definition: An acronym in which one or more letters stand for acronyms themselves. Such macronyms can be multiply nested with one acronym drilling down to another and then another and…

A.k.a., nested acronym

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XHR XML HTTP Request “XML” is “eXtensible Markup Language
“HTTP” stands for “HyperText Transfer Protocol”
POWER Performance Optimization With Enhanced RISC RISC stands for Reduced Instruction Set Computing
VHDL VHSIC Hardware Description Language VHSIC stands for “Very High Speed Integrated Circuit”
XSD XML Schema Definition XML stands for “eXtensible Markup Language”
SECS SEMI equipment communication standard SEMI stands for “Semiconductor equipment manufacturing industries”
AIM AOL Instant Messenger AOL stands for “America Online”
HASP Houston Automatic Spooling Priority “spooling” was an acronym — “simultaneous peripheral operations on-line”
RARS Regional ATOVS Retransmission Service


“Regional Advanced Television Infrared Observational Satellite Operational Vertical Sounder Retransmission Service”

ATOVS is “Advanced TOVS”

TOVS is “TIROS operational vertical sounder”

TIROS is “Television infrared observational satellite”.

Definition and examples courtesy of Wikipedia: Acronym.

Obsolete Acronym Definition: An acronym or abbreviation that is not used anymore or has been replaced with a different name.

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WAS Full Name IS
ORA Office of Research and Applications NOAA
A/S/L? Age/sex/location?
BBS Bulletin board system
ICQ An online chat program and messaging system.

Examples courtesy of Bustle.

RAS Syndrome Short for redundant acronym syndrome syndrome (being intentionally redundant, it is itself an example of self-referential humor).

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Definition: A type of “pleonasm that uses one or more of the words that make up an acronym in conjunction with the abbreviated form, thus in effect repeating one or more words.

Using a double acronym in this way is considered poor style when writing to persuade, impress, or avoid criticism, even though they are common in speech.

A.k.a., PNS syndrome, PIN number syndrome syndrome, personal identification number number syndrome syndrome, RAP phrases, redundant acronym phrase phrases, redundant acronym

RAS Syndrome the first “syndrome” in the “S” is redundant
PIN number the “N” in PIN stands for “number”
ATM machine the “M” in ATM stands for “machine”
Recursive Acronym Definition: An acronym that refers to itself because an existing ordinary acronym is given a new explanation of what the letters stand for, or a name is turned into an acronym by giving the letters an explanation of what they stand for, in each case with one of the letters standing recursively for the whole acronym.

A.k.a., recursive initialism, self-referential acronym

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GOD GOD Over Djinn from Douglas Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
EPT Education for Particular Task”, which later morphed into “Eptification for Particular Task” from John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar
GNU Gnu’s Not Unix!
Pine Pine Is Not Elm
MINCE MINCE is not complete EMACS
PHP PhpLanguage
TheGimp “The Gimp Image Manipulation Program”, but now is “The GNU Image Manipulation Program'”
Pine program for internet news & email

Examples courtesy of Wiki: Recursive Acronym,

Mutually Recursive Acronym Definition: A chain of recursive acronyms and their meanings.

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GNU Hird “GNU’s Not Unix! Hurd of Interfaces Representing Depth”
GNU Hurd “Hird of Unix-Replacing Daemons”

Definition and examples courtesy of Wikipedia: GNU Hurd.

Syllable Acronym Definition: An abbreviation usually formed from initial syllables of several words.

A.k.a., syllable abbreviation, syllabic abbreviation

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Interpol International police
Benelux A political-economic union of three countries: Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg
FORTRAN Formula Translation
Sunoco A merging of Sun Company, Inc. and Sun Oil Co.
Conrail Consolidated Rail Company
Amtrak “America” + “trak”
Calexico “California” + “Mexico”
RoSPA Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents
Technology Acronym Definition: Initialisms and acronyms in common and current usage by members of the Information Technology community and used to discuss LAN, internet, WAN, routing and switching protocols, and their applicable organizations.

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RAM random access memory IMAP Internet Message Access Protocol
ANSI American National Standards Institute CAT category (cable)
CPU central processing unit LAN local area network

Definition and examples courtesy of Wikipedia: List of information technology acronyms.

Three-Letter Acronym Definition: Acronyms which use three letters.

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AAA American Automobile Association
FTC Federal Trade Commission
BBB Better Business Bureau
DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse
DOA dead on arrival

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

This inforgraphic from “What’s Your Acronym IQ?” by Wpromote, is courtesy of Visually.