Abbreviations, Acronyms and Initialisms in English

FAQs, ATMs and RSVPs - what are these words in English? Abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms can get confusing for everyone, and social media and instant messaging has opened up a whole new world of communicating that can be daunting even for English speakers.

Gemma Correll - English

We have a lot of acronyms, abbreviations and initialisms in English, which we assume most people understand. But even for native speakers, it’s not clear what the difference between these three are, and many of them actually come from other languages!

Abbreviations are shortened forms of words or phrases. Acronyms and initialisms are both types of abbreviations, but there is a difference between them.

According to whatis.com, an acronym is “an abbreviation of several words in such a way that the abbreviation itself forms a pronounceable word. The word may already exist or it can be a new word.” There are some famous and international words that few people know were actually formed by putting words or letters together and shortening them, such as;   

Radar = radio detection and ranging

Laser = light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation

Scuba = self-contained underwater breathing apparatus

Initialisms, on the other hand, are made up (usually) of the first letters of a group of words, but the key difference between an initialism and an acronym is that they do not form a whole new word (as above with radar, laser and scuba).

Here are some common ones you will almost certainly encounter, if you have not already:

  • FAQs = Frequently Asked Questions

This acronym is frequently found on websites (like the one at UCT English Language Centre) and covers questions that many people have about a service/product/process, etc.

  • RSVP = Répondez S’il Vous Plaît

This is actually a French word, as you can see, but English speakers use this frequently (without even knowing that it is French) to mean ‘make a reservation’ or ‘respond’. For example, an invitation is sent out and requests you to ‘please RSVP by 19 May’. In other words, please let us know if you will be coming or not by the 19th.

  • ATM = Automated Teller Machine

This refers to a bank machine where you can draw or deposit cash.

  • DIY = Do It Yourself

Some people enjoy building/assembling their own furniture, doing home renovations, gardening, etc. There is a popular store in Europe called IKEA which is dedicated primarily to selling many items that can be put together at home. Pinterest is a social media channel which shares many ideas, tips and strategies for people who enjoy DIY and crafts.

  • i.e. = id est

This is Latin meaning ‘in other words’ or ‘that is (to say)’. An example in a sentence would be: “I like eating green vegetables, i.e. broccoli, beans, spinach etc.”

  • E.g. = Exempli gratia

This is another Latin word and means ‘for example’. Here is an example sentence: “The UCT English Language Centre offers preparation classes for English exams, e.g. IELTS and CAE.”

  • MD = Medical Doctor or Managing Director

If you are looking for a doctor, then usually MD will follow their title and name. For example, Dr. John Smith, MD. Remember, you can earn a Dr Title for many subjects, and this helps to clarify what type of Doctor this person is.

If you are looking at a company profile, or see the name of someone with MD, and it is in a professional context, then this will usually refer to someone as being the Managing Director of the company.

Today, we use all sorts of initialisms in communicating with one another via social media and instant messaging. Have you used or heard of these one’s?

BRB (Be Right Back)

BTW (By The Way)

PM (Private Message)

IDK (I Don’t Know)

TBH (To Be Honest)

LOL (Laughing Out Loud)

Gemma  Correll’s joke, which was used as the picture for this blog post, very aptly summarises how it can feel for non native speakers when these initialisms are used so freely. For English speakers, especially those not on social media or in a different age group, it sometimes feels just the same!
The teachers at UCT English Language Centre will almost certainly help you navigate around the world of abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms, and you may even find a fun and contemporary lesson dedicated to learning how you can use these in communicating with others.

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