Acronyms and abbreviations – alphabet soup?

Abbreviations and acronyms are shorter versions of words or phrases.


Acronyms are formed by using the first letters of an organisation, a device, or phrase to create a new word. They’re usually written in capital letters. If an acronym has four letters or more and you can pronounce it, then you can use upper and lower case. But if it’s a company or product name, be guided by how they write it.

When acronyms are pronounced as words, like Unicef, leave out the article and refer to them as Unicef not “the Unicef”. Even though you might refer to them as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund when written in full.

Acronyms that have become words in their own right are written lower case:

  • radar (radio detection and ranging)
  • sonar (sound navigation and ranging)
  • scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus)
  • laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation)
  • modem (modulator-demodulator)


Names of organisations are often abbreviated by using the first letter of each word. If you have an international audience, be aware that these can mean different things in different countries. For example, RAF. In the UK this stands for Royal Air Force, in South Africa it means Road Accident Fund.

Therefore, it’s best to write all words out once with the abbreviation in brackets the first time: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). But don’t use quotation marks for the letters in brackets. It’s often done in legal documents, but has no place in articles, on websites, in brochures, or other marketing material.

The contemporary style is to write acronyms and abbreviations without full stops.

  • ASAP/asap – as soon as possible
  • ADD – attention deficit disorder
  • ATM – automated teller machine
  • B&B – Bed and breakfast
  • CAPTCHA – completely automated public turing test to tell computers and humans apart
  • DOB – date of birth
  • DIY – do it yourself
  • DVD – digital versatile disc
  • ETA – estimated time of arrival
  • FAQ – frequently asked questions
  • GIF – graphics interchange format
  • ID – identification document
  • Inc – Incorporated
  • IQ – intelligence quotient
  • mph – miles per hour
  • NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • OTC – over the counter
  • Prof – Professor
  • PS – post script
  • St – street
  • SUV – sports utility vehicle
  • TBA – to be announced
  • UFO – unidentified flying object


Just add an “s”:

  • Ts & Cs
  • DVDs
  • CVs
  • NGOs

Often people add an apostrophe before the “s”, but that’s wrong. Find out more about when to use apostrophes here.

©Andrea Paulsen