Difference between Acronym and Abbreviation

Published on November 24, 2016

Without looking up the answer, which one of these sentences are correct?

  1. The abbreviation for “United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization” is UNESCO.
  2. The acronym for “United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization” is UNESCO.

Can’t give a definite answer? Don’t fret.

Many people–even those who are grammar-conscious–incorrectly use the two terms as if they are equivalent. This mistake is understandable as the English language has a vast range of words with similar, yet distinct meanings. Among the long list of confusing words are “acronym” and “abbreviation”. In this article we are going to discuss the difference between the two and hopefully clear up any confusion.

Definitions

Acronym vs Abbreviation
Examples of Acronyms

An acronym is a word usually formed after taking the first letters or syllables of every word in a phrase and using them to form a shorter word.

Although most acronyms are capitalized, like “NATO”, some have been adopted as regular words and are not written in caps. One famous example is the word “radar”, which is actually the acronym for “Radio Detection and Ranging”. Instead of writing it as “RDAR”, “radar” takes the first two letters of the word radio in order to make the acronym easy to say, read and remember.  Another acronym which has become part of our common vocabulary is the word “scuba”, which stands for “Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus”.

Moreover, it is important to note that an acronym can also be easily mistaken for initialism. Like acronyms, initialism uses the first characters of each word in a phrase, but it does not result in a word. For example, the initialism for “Federal Bureau of Investigation” is “FBI”, which is read by pronouncing each individual letter as “F-B-I”, and not “fibi”.

abbreviation
Examples of Abbreviations

An abbreviation, on the other hand, is simply the broader term for the reduction of letters in a word or phrase. For instance, the abbreviation for “pedestrian crossing” is “ped xing”, and the abbreviation for “mister” is “Mr.”. Multiple letters are purposely removed for convenience in reading, writing and saying the full word. Abbreviations are made up of four subsets: acronyms, initialisms, contractions and shortenings. Abbreviations can be written with or without periods.

Acronym vs Abbreviation

So we have just laid out the usage and proper definitions of the two terms. What, then, is the difference between an acronym and an abbreviation?

To better explain this, we have to understand that “abbreviation” is the general term for words that are shortened, and that an acronym is just one type of abbreviation. To answer the question from the start of the article, it is safe to say that “UNESCO” is both an acronym and an abbreviation. The term “UNESCO” is 1) a readable word formed using the initial characters of a phrase, and is 2) a shortened form of the original phrase.

Furthermore, the word “FBI” is an abbreviation. However, it is classified as initialism and not as an acronym. The word “couldn’t” is an abbreviation, specifically a contraction, and not an acronym. In short, all acronyms are abbreviations, but not all abbreviations are acronyms.

Comparison Chart

Acronym Abbreviation
A specific subset of abbreviations A broad category made up of four subsets that refers to shortened words
Not written with periods

(examples: NATO, UNESCO)

May be written with periods or apostrophes

(examples: Dr., shouldn’t, they’re)

Form readable words

(examples: radar, scuba)

May be readable or unreadable

(examples: PHP, HTTP, GMO)