Grammar Shorts: Acronyms and Their Proper Usage

Have you ever wondered about acronyms and how they should be used correctly in writing? As a writer who seeks to evolve regularly, I feel no matter how long you have been writing there is always room to grow. You can never learn too much, especially when the rules are forever changing. I thought a refresher article about the rules and proper usage of acronyms could be an interesting topic.

Most people are aware of the term “acronym,” but for those who do not know the meaning of the word, let’s look at its definition. An ‘acronym’ is a word formed from the initial letters of a name or compound term. These acronyms can be pronounced as if they are in fact a word.  The words that acronyms form are usually catchy and memorable. Mistaking acronyms for abbreviations is common. Although they do present differently and represent longer phrases. Generally, acronyms will stand for organizations, ideas, and expressions but there are rules of usage.

How to properly use these types of abbreviations in compositions?

The first rule of usage is to write out the full name or phrase with the abbreviated acronym in parenthesis. This gives a proper introduction to the abbreviation that will be used throughout the remainder of your composition.  This is especially useful for acronyms that are not widely known. Let’s look at an example: TDOI, this acronym is not a commonly known. So, my usage of it in this post will leave my reader asking for or wondering about its definition. It can also distract from the overall content of my post. Although, when I present it as Two Drops of Ink (TDOI), then my reader knows the definition and can easily do the needed research to find out more information. Some acronyms do not need a formal introduction like “ASAP.” Obviously, everyone knows this is the abbreviation for “as soon as possible,” or that VIP is for “very important person,” so there is no need to write them out. Acronyms of this nature can be used with ease in formal and informal writing; however, in a formal essay (academic), it is always required that you spell out acronyms first.

There may also be a bit of confusion as to whether acronyms should be capitalized or written in lower case. In my research, I found quite a few arguments discussing the proper usage of abbreviations of organizations or ideas. As a seeker of proper grammar and syntax in writing, I refuse to follow the crowd but instead turn to those who are learned and are currently learning the proper ways of the literary world. This time I did not email the editors of Two Drops of Ink, but instead, I utilized the tools that were given to me. Listed below are two sites that answered my question.

  1. The Chicago Manual of Style: An informative site that allows wordsmiths to seek out the rules and proper way of writing.
  2. English Language & Usage: This site is a question and answer site for Linguists, Etymologists, and those who are enthusiasts of the English language.

The answer I found is that acronyms can be capitalized, but here is where it can get a little tricky ladies and gentlemen; if the acronym can be spoken as a word like Nato or Nasa, then it can lose its capitalization. It can also keep its capitalization if it’s under five words. This rule changes if you have more than one acronym in a sentence. Take a sentence like this one: Do you want the pos trans sent via DM or html? That sentence can be extremely confusing! The best way to write that sentence out with the use of abbreviations would be as follows: Do you want the POS transaction sent via DM or HTML?  When written out it reduces the appearance of typographical errors.

Acronyms five words or longer are written out in lower case for cosmetic reasons. For example, “I gave a donation to Unicef” is much more cosmetically acceptable than, “I gave a donation to UNICEF.” The presence of long capitalized words can be confusing to the reader. It’s always crucial for a writer to catch and keep the attention of the reader in all styles of writing.

Like most formal and informal rules in the literary world, it is much more in depth. There are rules that are forever changing, and then there are popular and not so popular opinions. Basically, I felt the need to take the most important rules and clarify them for those like myself who want to learn the proper standards and techniques. The more we learn, the better we become as writers.


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  1. Thanks for all of your comments. Sorry for the late replies. If there is ever anything about writing anyone would love for me to research and post, let me know.

  2. In the business I cut my teeth in we used to include acronyms inside new acronyms, making life really complex, so things like HTML version 5 became H5. When I first started writing business reports I had people complain about my use of acronyms, so experience taught me to explain terms before using them for the first time. People overuse them it is true.

    • Peter, I write articles for a client who loves inserting so many acronyms with no explanation. I had to tell him it looks a mess and to most it’s gibberish.

  3. Hi, Lydia. This info solved some dilemmas for me. Very useful and applicable on a daily basis. Thanks for the research and clarification!

    As usual, so clearly written, so easy to read. You would never be successful writing for bureaucrats.

  4. Lydia, thank you for researching and sharing this informative information. I’m always impressed by your clarity in explaining things. I have always had a hard time with grammatical rules. This piece came in handy because Scott had pointed out an error on my last post. This reinforces the help I needed. Thanks, John.

    • Wow…. Thanks for the compliment! No just a lover of the craft wanting to learn all that I can and share the love.

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