Difference between Acronym and Initialism

By: | Updated: Nov-19, 2017

Whether you are on the World Wide Web or on your phone trying to communicate with someone through SMS, shortcuts of common terms and phrases (e.g. lol, rofl, yolo, btw) are frequently used. These shortcuts are called abbreviations, and they can be acronyms or initialisms. Yes, we use “or” because the two terms are different. How are they different? This article will discuss their difference.

Summary Table

AcronymInitialism
Uses the initial or non-initial letters or syllables of the words in a phraseUses the initial letters of the words in a phrase
Readable and pronounceable like regular wordsCan be read letter by letter

Definitions

Acronym
Acronym and initialism

An acronym is a type of abbreviation where the first letters of the words in a phrase are used to form a shorter term. These shorter terms can be pronounced and are sometimes written like regular words. Examples are:

  1. Asap – as soon as possible
  2. Scuba – Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
  3. UNICEF – United Nations Children’s Fund
  4. UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  5. Yolo – you only live once

Some acronyms, however, use the first syllables and non-initial letters instead. For example:

  1. Radar – Radio Detecting and Ranging
  2. Interpol – International Criminal Police Organization
  3. Nabisco – National Biscuit Co
  4. Sonar – Sound Navigation and Ranging
  5. Smart (car) – Swatch Mercedes Art

Like an acronym, an initialism is also a subcategory of abbreviation where the first letters of the words in a phrase are combined to create a new and shorter term. However, the newly formed shortcuts are unpronounceable and are read letter by letter. Let’s take a look at examples below:

  1. DVR – Digital Video Recorder
  2. USB – Universal Serial Bus
  3. PST – Pacific Standard Time
  4. NYC – New York City
  5. IRS – Internal Revenue Service

Acronym vs Initialism

What, then, is the difference between acronym and initialism?

An acronym is a combination of initial or non-initial letters or syllables of the words in a phrase to form a shorter word. On the other hand, an initialism uses only the first letters of the words in a phrase to create a shorter term.

Both are types of abbreviations, but the main difference lies in how they are pronounced. Acronyms can be pronounced and are sometimes written as regular words, while initialisms are read letter by letter.

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