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Abbreviations, initials and acronyms

Abbreviations and letters

When we abbreviate a word or phrase, we shorten it. Abbreviations can be formed from the first letters of the word or phrase. In such cases, we normally say them by spelling out each letter:

For some written abbreviations, individual letters or sounds from the word are used, although the word is always said in full:

Abbreviations and clipping

Abbreviations are also formed by omitting one or more syllables from a word. This is sometimes called ‘clipping’, because we keep the beginning of the word and ‘clip’ the rest of the word. The abbreviations here are written and spoken in this form:



An initial is the first letter of a word. We often use initials to refer to the names of countries and organisations:

USA United States of America

BBC British Broadcasting Corporation

Initials also refer to the first letters of people’s first names. When we fill in forms, we are sometimes asked to state our surname and initials. When we refer to ourselves using initials, it is more formal:

J. Adams, lawyer (formal)

John Adams, lawyer (less formal)

Sometimes first names are in full, and middle names are included as initials. This is also a formal use. It is particularly common in American English:

Robert B. Davidson



Acronyms are words which are formed from the first letters of other words, and which are pronounced as full words. Examples of acronyms:

NATO /ˈneɪtəʊ/ North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

scuba /ˈsku:bə/ self-contained underwater breathing apparatus

radar /ˈreɪdɑ(r)/ radio detection and ranging

SATs /sæts/ standard attainment tests (tests taken by schoolchildren in the UK)

Newer acronyms are written with capital letters:

Jodie’s got her SATs next week – she’s a bit nervous.

Where the acronym has existed for a long time and become fully established in the language, it is written with small letters (or with one capital letter if it is at the beginning of a sentence):

The ship’s radar had been destroyed in battle.

Radar was one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century.

We went scuba-diving in Australia.

Some acronyms are pronounced as a combination of letters and syllables:

She sent me a jpeg file with a photo of her wedding. (joint photographic experts group /ˈdʒeɪpeg/)

You can buy the dictionary on CD-ROM. (compact disc read-only memory; pronounced /si: di: ˈrɒm/)

We use some acronyms in the plural or possessive:

Are the pictures on your memory stick jpegs or bitmaps?

NATO’s foreign policy has been criticised recently.

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