Can you spot whether abbreviations are acronyms or initialisms? Many can’t, even though we all encounter plenty of both regularly.
There’s an easy way to tell whether collections of letters are really acronyms or initialisms. Both are definitely abbreviations, but each has its own unique meaning.
Let’s consider a pair of abbreviations for government agencies: the FBI and NASA. The FBI stands for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. NASA stands for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Both agencies have been around long enough and are familiar enough that we know them by the letters that represent their full names.
But are the two abbreviations acronyms or initialisms?
To answer this most basic question, you have to think about how you read the abbreviations out loud.
The three-letter FBI abbreviation isn’t a word you can pronounce. When we encounter it, we say the three letters: “F-B-I.” That makes it an initialism, a name formed by an abbreviation whose individual letters we read out one by one.
On the other hand, NASA, is an abbreviation we pronounce as a two-syllable word. Since it looks like a perfectly pronounceable word, we take advantage of that.
FBI is an initialism because we say it as initials. NASA is an acronym because we pronounce it as a word.
There’s gray area among some examples, for instance. Consider the abbreviation for the phrase “Rest in Peace.” Some people might pronounce its abbreviation, RIP, like the word that means to tear up something. Others pronounce the three letters individually: “R-I-P.” So which is it? I suppose it depends on how you treat the word.
South Carolina’s state health department is known as the Department of Health and Environmental Control. It’s popular abbreviation is “DHEC.” Most of us in the Palmetto State pronounce it as “DEE-heck.” It’s part initialism and part acronym.
Merriam-Webster notes that many people refer to both acronyms and initialisms as acronyms. You wouldn’t be wrong, technically, to call FBI, NASA, DHEC or RIP acronyms. You would be more precise, however, to consider whether you pronounce the syllables or each letter to determine which it is beyond that.