difference between acronyms and abbreviations

So, I thought I knew the difference between an acronym and an abbreviation when I built the Acrobot tool. As I mention on this page - Why you should use acronyms and abbreviations - there is a difference, which I defined like so:

An abbreviation is just that - a string of words that have been reduced to their initial leading letters. When you read it out, you naturally pronounce each letter individually.

NSPCC pronounced "Enn Ess Pee See See"

RNIB pronounced "Arr Enn Eye Bee"

An acronym is a special kind of abbreviation. Either by luck or design, the initial letters make up an abbreviation that can be read aloud as a word in its own right:

NASA pronounced "Nassa"

GUI pronounced "Gooey"

This was based on my understanding of the <acronym> and <abbr> tags. From HTMLhelp.com:

Unlike other kinds of abbreviations, acronyms are pronounceable words, though in some cases the pronunciation is strictly a presentation issue. For example, "SQL" and "URL" are pronounced as words by some people and pronounced letter-by-letter by others. In such cases, authors should use the ABBR element, possibly with a style sheet rule specifying the pronunciation for aural rendering.


But then I received a note that suggested that my differentiation was not correct - that the issue was not about pronunciation of the word (as I had suggested) but more about whether the abbreviation was based on initial letters or some other kind of squishing down of the text. So, NATO is an acronym, as is WCAG (and not an abbreviation, according to my definition), but TX (meaning Texas) is an abbreviation.

Dictionary.com has the following definitions:

Acronym: A word formed from the initial letters of a name, such as WAC for Women’s Army Corps, or by combining initial letters or parts of a series of words, such as radar for radio detecting and ranging.

Abbreviation: A shortened form of a word or phrase used chiefly in writing to represent the complete form, such as Mass. for Massachusetts or USMC for United States Marine Corps.

So, the question is: "Is the HTML specification incorrect in interpreting the meaning of these words? And if this is true, what should we be using?!"

I’d appreciate feedback on this - if you have something to offer that might clarify this, please get in touch.

Filed under: Accessibility
Posted by Ian on Wednesday, April 23, 2003

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