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Abbreviations, initialisms and acronyms

We’ve been a little self-indulgent and playful during the holiday season, but readers are calling us back to business. Here’s one:

For many years I have had anxiety about the plurals of acronyms and initialisms. I have no idea what the correct form is. I find myself typing PC's sometimes to mean more than one PC. I see others do it too. The apostrophe seems wrong because PC's is not a contraction nor does it imply possession. PCs looks a little weird and if it needs to be capitalized PCS would simply be incorrect at times.

Let me try to put those anxieties at rest. The problem is not one of choosing between correct and incorrect forms, but of choosing from a set of options and following the choices consistently.

An abbreviation like PC can be made plural as either PCs or PC’s. The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style recommend the former, The New York Times the latter.

Now let’s make it more complicated. If, however, an abbreviation contains internal periods, Chicago joins New York Times in wanting you to include an apostrophe: M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s. And The Times uses periods in abbreviations — C.I.A., F.B.I. — when AP and others do not.

Everyone encourages you to use an apostrophe when making single letters plural: all A’s, p’s and q’s.

Abbreviating names leads to two categories, initialisms and acronyms. An initialism uses the first letters of the words being abbreviated and is pronounced letter by letter rather than as a word: FBI, mph. An acronym combines first letters or compounds of the constituent words into an abbreviation that is pronounced as a word: NASA, scuba. If it’s not pronounced as a word, it’s not an acronym.

Initialisms may or may not include periods; acronyms do not. Initialisms may be written as capital letters or lowercase letters. Acronyms tend to be written all caps — UNESCO — though some prefer to write acronyms of five or more letters with an initial capital followed by lowercase letters. But the latter practice tends not to be followed uniformly.

The definite article is used before abbreviations of agencies — the FBI, the CIA — and nations — the U.S., the U.K. — but not before the abbreviations of universities’ names. Devoutly as some might wish, Ohio State University is not called the OSU. Some bureaucrats indulge in omitting the article before the names of their agencies, because they are very important people, pressed for time on the nation’s business and too urgently focused on the public weal to trifle with the definite article. For them, it’s OMB says and EPA reports. But if you were interested in mimicking pomposity, you wouldn’t be reading this.

What it comes down to, as is so often the case, is that you have a range of acceptable choices. Pick the one that is consistent with your personal preference and the practices of the publication you write for, and stick with it.

It might not amuse you to consult AP or Chicago or some other manual to see just how complicated they can make things, but otherwise, be not afraid.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:01 PM | | Comments (16)


Some time ago when I worked for Johns Hopkins, I received a memo from some University office that made it very clear that in any written or verbal communications we were to refer to our employer as The Johns Hopkins University. They were serious. I really enjoy hearing actors announce their character's importantance by stating that they went to John Hopkins. Errrr....

Wonderful post. I love all of it. It comes as I mark a milestone in my personal/professional life ... transitioning from life as a copy editor at a major metro daily paper to a "content coordinator" (or whatever i decide my title is on that specific day) at a website. That means, as you accurately realize, that I have to settle on a rule that is not only easy for me to remember ... but is likely to be close to what my site's users will be doing.

It sort of transforms the style game. In a good way, I think.

Hunh. I'd always thought the distinction was the "the," not the nature of the abbreviated entity. It is, after all, THE Federal Bureau of Investigation, and THE United Kingdom, while (Johns Hopkins notwithstanding) it's just plain Ohio State University.

One also wonders about the HR Department at AT&T....

Oh, for the simplicity of Koine Greek, where all proper nouns are arthrous.... ;-)

So the difference between initialism and acronym boils down to whether or not it can reasonably be pronounced as a word? And some generally accepted acronyms are themselves selectively formed, such as "the U.K." for "The United Kingdon of Great Britain and Ireland," "the A&P" for "The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company," or "KFC" for "Kentucky Fried Chicken" since they decided to de-emphasize "Fried."

Well, none of those organizarions are preceded by THE in capital letters. I believe you would write the FBI, not The FBI and write the University of Hoohah, not The University of Hoohah. JHU wants to be referred to as The Johns Hopkins University.

And the blog you wrote in on is hosted by The Baltimore Sun. Many organizations have "The" as part of their legal name and, as mentioned in a previous article, protect that name by requiring that, at least, their employees use the full name.

To clarify about the definite article:

We use the captialized definite article for periodical publications in which it is part of the title: The Baltimore Sun, The New York Times, The Washington Post but not the Chicago Tribune.

We do not use it for colleges or organizations: the Johns Hopkins University, the Ohio State University, the Associated Press, the FBI, the United States of America.

John, "The Baltimore Sun" is the name of the company, but isn't the newspaper's name simply The Sun (as it appears on the masthead)? Some nitpickers, I think, might even write the name as The (Baltimore) Sun.

Previously, years ago, The Baltimore Sun was the name of the company, publishing The Sun, The Evening Sun and The Sunday Sun. But in the latest reorganization, over the past few months, the umbrella company is The Baltimore Sun Media Group, and the name of the paper has been formally changed to The Baltimore Sun.

Like The Johns Hopkins, The Ohio State University wishes unsuccessfully to be known that way, and is officially the flagship university in Ohio. I say this as a product of another and older Ohio University.

It seems like an odd cause to undertake. So you're The Johns Hopkins University, and not any of those other Johns Hopkins universities I might run across in daily life.

At least the Times in Los Angeles lists its name as Los Angeles Times, because The Los Angeles Times would be redundant in two languages. The Los Angeles Angels might be the most redundant name in sports.

I'll bet most publications lower-case the "the" when referring to the bands whose official names are The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. No harm done, but the Web site for Red Hot Chili Peppers often gets that band's name wrong.

I don't have one of the style manuals handy, but I remember reading that for single letters you can omit the apostrophe if you italicize the letter. That works for abbreviations also and seems like a good solution to me.

I am reminded of the Condon Report, which tried to convert UFO from an initialism to an acronym with the pronunciation "OOFO," and hence became almost unreadable when it referred to "an UFO."

The hoi polloi crowd

In proper library usage, any abbreviation which has elements of more than one letter must have a space after that segment; hence, Ph._D.

Perhaps, but Chicago omits the spaces between the letters in abbreviations of academic titles; in fact, in the current edition it suggests dispensing with the periods altogether.

As a fellow graduate of the older Ohio University and the sister of an OSU alumnus, I know well the pretensions of "The" Ohio State University. My current position working with institutions of higher education has taught me that OSU is not alone in considering "The" to be a part of their name. Several schools insist on the "The." I've even had one school insist on being called "The U of A" on second reference (as in, "At The U of A, you'll find excellent business and science programs."), when we dared just call them "UA."

And on publications: Chicago style (which we use here) says to lowercase the "the" in periodical titles, so it's the New York Times, not The New York Times. The "the" doesn't get italics, either.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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