Abbreviations: Acronyms, Initialisms, Contractions, Apocopation

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Abbreviation is the general concept of shortening something, either in spoken, but usually in written form.

Abbreviated forms may or may not syntactically act differently, although they cognitively

Initialisms and acronyms

Initialisms (a.k.a. alphabetisms) and acronyms are based on initial letters of words (or syllables, in syllabic writing systems) and pronounced based on this new form.

  • Initialisms, such as include 'NSA' and 'FYI', are pronounced as the component letters.
  • Acronyms make enough syllabic sense to be pronounced as if they were words, e.g. the initialism NATO or the syllabic acronym spetsnaz.

Acronyms are more easily considered words than abbreviations. In one of the best known cases, laser quickly become so common a term that it is now rare to see it as LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). Similar for radar.[1]

Note also that:

  • Certain languages are more fond of syllabic acronyms, like Russian spetsnaz (short for spetsialnogo naznacheniya), and e.g. Indonesian has a few creative forms[2]
  • the term acronym is often used to refer to both acronyms and initialisms, and sometimes to such further forms
  • some things may qualify as both initialism and acronym, e.g. LED depending on who you ask
  • ...and there are some mixed cases, such as in JPEG and MS-DOS. This has no name, so are usually grouped under acronyms.



Since many of these are not abbreviations, see retronym


Contractions reduce words or phrases in size, often joining them for convenience into what can (morphologically) be seen as a new word, while leaving

meaning the same or similar,
pronunciation similar or at least predictable.

Contraction is often applied to shorten common word combinations, and is often written with an apostrophe to indicate where letters were omitted.

Perhaps the most common cases in English are shortened pronunciation of adjacent words such as in aren't and other common pronoun-verb combinations.

It may also be motivated by easier pronunciation. Consider the omission of vowels in the French C'est l'hotel (while c'est is fairly comparable to the English pronoun-verb cases)

Visual resemblance to the original is sometimes paid attention to, in particular in more abstract contractions such as e-commerce.

Recently, the meaning of contractions has widened to include omission of letters from a single word (cf. elision), and the lexicalization (acceptance) of such words.

See also:


The practice of apocopation takes something away from the end of a word (e.g. mathematics → math), yielding an apocope.

Comparable concepts include aphaeresis, which removes the beginning of a word (e.g. telephone → phone), and syncopation, which removes something from the middle.

Syncopations can include contractions, silent syllables (usually when unstressed) often for rhythm, omission for ease of pronunciation (see also elision), poetic syllable count, or such.


Other abbreviations include:

  • Titles and honorifics, such as
Dr. (for doctor)
Dres. (for Latin doctores)
Mr., Mrs., etc.

Shortening single words, often with a single period to mark this, like:

  • ca. or c. (Latin 'circa') meaning "approximately"
  • cf. (Latin 'confer' / 'conferatur', meaning "compare to") (which has some added sense of "see also" -- and is sometimes seen abused to only mean see also)
  • in. for inch,
  • kg for kilogram,
  • pp. meaning 'pages', e.g. as "pp. 334-341" (seems more of a convention around libraries than anything else)
  • viz. (Latin 'videlicet', meaning "it may be seen", but also "that is to say," "namely," or "to wit"
(Also frequently seen used without period)
Compare with i.e.
  • vs. (Latin versus, meaning "against")
there are specific contexts that prefer versus, vs. (sports listings and newspapers in general?(verify)), or v. (mostly just in legal documents)
style guides may have their own say, e.g. often saying you might as well write it fully because that mentioned variation is lost on almost everyone
(there is also an unrelated v.s., 'vide supra', "see earlier." but this now probably too confusable)

Shortened expressions (often Latin phrases), like:

  • i.e. (Latin 'id est', roughtly "that is (to say)" / "namely" / "in other words", sometimes "in this case"),
so mostly used to to name something equivalent. (seen confused with e.g.)
  • e.g. (Latin 'exempli gratia', meaning "for example" or "for the sake of example"
sometimes explained as 'example given' as a mnemonic
style guides tend to dictate a comma directly after these, although many people don't use it.
  • etc. (Latin 'et cetera', roughly "and so forth", "and other things")
  • N.B. (Latin 'nota bene', meaning "note well" in the take heed sort of sense),
  • P.S. (Latin 'post scriptum', meaning "written after", often used for afterthoughts on a letter)
  • B.C. and A.D., 'Before Christ' and 'Anno Domini.'
  • AM and PM, (Latin 'ante meridiem' and 'post meridiem', meaning "before noon" and "after noon")
  • et al. (Latin et alii / et alia / et alios, meaning "and others" in a few grammatical cases, used in citations of articles. The short form means you don't need to know Latin or who is being referred to exactly)
Note: et is the complete word, meaning 'and', so "et. al." is incorrect


  • phrase shortening is rather similar to initialisms, which themselves focus on noun phrases. (is there a more specific difference, though?(verify))
  • style and period placement can be looser and vary for some of these (e.g. BC, AD, AM, PM)
  • viz. and i.e. are similar, see e.g. [3]

See also