More about acronyms and abbreviations

The more I look at this, the more layers it reveals. No wonder people often mark up their web pages using the incorrect tags for abbreviations (if they try at all). It’s very confusing - I admit that until very recently I was incorrectly marking up almost everything as an <acronym> when I should have used <abbr>. Hopefully by my going through this pain and making this tool make the decisions for you, everyone will be happy!

“An acronym (pronounced AK-ruh-nihm, from Greek acro- in the sense of extreme or tip and onyma or name) is an abbreviation of several words in such a way that the abbreviation itself forms a word. According to Webster’s, the word doesn’t have to already exist; it can be a new word. Webster’s cites "snafu" and "radar", two terms of World War Two vintage, as examples. Implicit is the idea that the new word has to be pronounceable and ideally easy to remember.”

Source: Whatis.com

Looking at the W3C spec, it gives examples of <abbr> usage, but not of <acronym>:

<abbr title=”World Wide Web”>WWW</abbr>

<abbr lang=”fr”
title=”Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer”>SNCF</abbr>

<abbr lang=”es” title=”Doña”>Doña</abbr>

<abbr title=”Abbreviation”>abbr.</abbr>

Source: HTML4.01 Recommendation

So, WWW is an abbreviation then? Not an acronym? Apparantly it’s something called an initialism - that is, it’s created from the initial letters but is not a pronouncable word:

“An initialism is an abbreviation formed by using the first letters, or initials, of a series of words, for example BBC or IBM. This is called an initialism when the letters are sounded out, as in the previous example, but it is called an acronym when the abbreviation forms a pronouncable word, such as NATO or AIDS. However, this distinction is often lost in common speech; most people call both types of abbreviations acronyms.”

Source: Wikipedia.org

… expect we have no tag in HTML for this. There is no <initialism> tag. So, the rule really does seem to be:

  • If it’s not pronouncable, it goes into the <abbr> tag (which is precisely what the majority of phrases in Acrobot come under)
  • If it is pronouncable, then it is an <acronym>

However, there are still some grey areas:

  • What is SQL? Is it an acronym, abbreviation or initialism? Actually it’s an initialism, but how do you pronounce it? ‘Sequel’ or ‘S-Q-L’?
  • What is USA? Is it an acronym? No, letters are pronounced separately, so therefore it must be an abbreviation, as there is no letter for ‘of’, and therefore does not qualify as an initialism. So it must be an abbreviation.
  • Can you have a single letter acronym? ‘I’ is a word, it’s pronouncable in its own right. So, if you use ‘i’ as a shortened form for italics, is this an acronym? It seems to satisfy the rules as an acronym but somehow seems wrong (thanks to Mac for sowing this particular seed!)

It appears, therefore, that an acronym is a type of abbreviation - they are not mutually exclusive sets - and while it could be acceptable to mark up NATO as an abbreviation, it is better to mark it up for what it truly is - an acronym.

For anyone still reading this far, well done. It may seem a little off-track for Accessify, but bear in mind that these tags are very useful for increasing the understandability of a document, and you do need to know how to use them properly. The difference between these two tags may seem trivial to some people, but if you are using a screen reader or speech browser that recognises these tags, there is a real need to define how the phrase should be pronounced. If you do mark up a phrase such as BBC as an acronym, you might accidentally cause it to read out some garbled attempted pronunciation, but if you mark it up as an abbreviation, this is less likely to happen.

Remember, you can influence the way that devices read these phrases out in aural style sheet:

acronym {speak : normal;}

abbr.initialism {speak : spell-out;}

abbr.truncation {speak : normal;}

Source: Ben Meadowcroft

However, support for aural style sheets is almost non-existent presently. But that does not mean you shouldn’t use this - think of ‘forward compatibility’. Implement this now and when something comes along that does support it, you can sit back and smile smugly.

Finally, I had to include this quote (sent by e-mail from Gez). It’s the English teacher bit I love …

“An acronym must be pronounceable; otherwise it’s an abbreviation. My English teacher was quite definite on this, and also assured us that she was never wrong about anything.”

Filed under: Accessibility
Posted by Ian on Thursday, April 24, 2003

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