The Common English Mistake You Desperately Need to Stop Making

Despite my lack of a formal education in writing, I’m something of a stickler for grammatical correctness. This isn’t to say that I never make mistakes because, boy howdy, I make more than my fair share. But, at heart, I’m a huge fan of the English language and seeing it bastardized gets me a little miffed.

Today, we’re going to talk about acronyms: what they are, but also—and more importantly—what they’re not.

An acronym is a word made up of the first letters of other words. NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), SCUBA (Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) are all acronyms because they can be pronounced as words (“Nay-Tow”, “Scoo-buh” and “Naf-tuh” are the pronunciations of the previous examples).

An incredibly common mistake is to refer to the following abbreviations as acronymns: FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), FTP (File Transfer Protocol) or CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).

These are not acronyms. They’re called initialisms.

Burn this into your brain.

Initialisms are different from acronyms because they’re not pronounced like words, but simply spelled the way they appear.

Acronyms form words. Initialisms are just letters.

Please stop referring to initialisms as acronyms. The longer this goes on, the more likely it is that the definition of “acronym” will be amended to include initialisms. If you don’t think the English language is above accepting glaring errors into the canonical language based purely on widespread, extended usage by regular people, I’d like you to meet my mortal enemy, “irregardless.”

If it makes you feel better, both of these English constructs fit nicely under the more generic umbrella of “abbreviations”. If you find “initialism” too difficult to work into your “walking around vocabulary”, just call them abbreviations and we’ll all get along just fine.

This has been a public service announcement.