What Are Acronyms? (with Examples)

Acronym

An acronym is an abbreviation spoken like a word. For example:
  • NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)
  • NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes)
  • laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation)
  • (Note: Some acronyms are so common, they are often treated like normal words and are written in lowercase letters.)
acronym meaning

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More Examples of Acronyms

Some acronyms have turned into normal words (or common nouns as they're really called), which can now be written with lowercase letters.
  • My favourite thing to do on this planet is to scuba dive. (Astronaut Buzz Aldrin)
  • (scuba = Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus)
  • As an Armenian, I am obsessed with laser hair removal. (Reality TV star Kim Kardashian)
  • (As laser is an acronym of "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation", the word lazer is an incorrect spelling not the American spelling.)
  • I am never honored. I am either under the radar or over the radar. (Actress and Comedian Joan Rivers)
  • (Radar = RAdio Detection And Ranging)
Also of interest is the acronym NATO, which is commonly written as Nato. This is on the verge of completing its transition from acronym to normal word. In this case, it's becoming a proper noun (i.e., a name), which is why the N is capitalised.

Why Should I Care about Acronyms?

There are two good reasons to care about acronyms.

(Reason 1) Don't use the word "acronym" when you mean abbreviation

Don't use the word acronym when you mean abbreviation. Remember that an acronym is an abbreviation spoken like a word (i.e., you don't read out the individual letters).

UNESCO and UNHCR are both abbreviations, but only UNESCO is an acronym. (UNCHR is an initialism abbreviation.) Therefore, the following are not acronyms:
  • BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)
  • LRS (Linear Recursive Sequence)
  • M.O.T. (Ministry of Transport)
  • (These are all initialism abbreviations.)
  • e.g. (Latin: exempli gratia)
  • Mr. Jones and Prof. Smith (Mister and Professor)
  • (These are a type of abbreviation called a contraction.)
You will often see a "List of Acronyms" at the end of a formal document. I haven't seen a list of acronyms yet, but I've seen plenty of lists of abbreviations (some of which have been acronyms).

Using the word acronym incorrectly is an example "übercorrect" writing. Acronym might sound more highbrow than abbreviation, but all too often it's the wrong word. (It's a bit like using "between you and I" and "please contact myself". These terms sound fairly swish, but they're grammatically wrong.)

acronym definition

Read more about abbreviations.

(Reason 2) Use the right version of "an" or "a" before your acronym.

Don't forget that acronyms are spoken like words. This usually affects the sound of the first letter, which determines whether to use "an" or "a" (called indefinite articles).

Remember that "an" is used before a vowel sound, and "a" is used before a consonant sound. (The word sound is important because consonants can create vowel sounds, and vowels can create consonant sounds.)

For example:
  • This cheese is subject to a NAFTA export tariff.
  • (NAFTA means North American Free Trade Agreement. It is an acronym (i.e., it is pronounced like a word). Therefore, "a" is correct.)
  • He is an NBA player.
  • (NBA stands for National Basketball Association. It is not an acronym. The individual letters are pronounced (i.e., en-be-ay), so "an" is correct.)
Here is another example of an acronym taking a different article to an initialism abbreviation (i.e., a non-acronym) starting with the same letter.
  • He is a EULA specialist.
  • (EULA means End-User License Agreement. It is pronounced you-lah.)
  • He is an EU specialist.
  • (EU means European Union. It is pronounced ee-you.)
Read more about using "an" or "a" with abbreviations.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited and printed to create exercise worksheets.

See Also

Overview of abbreviations (includes initialisms) Using full stops (periods) in abbreviations