TLA is an acronym for "Three Letter Acronym". Is it also an abbreviation, since it abbreviates the original phrase?


3 Answers 3


An acronym (as the term is commonly used) is a term that is formed from the initial letters of some longer name and is pronounced differently than the expanded form. Examples of acronyms as the term is commonly used:

  • FBI, which stands for Federal Bureau of Investigation, but is pronounced ef-bee-I
  • NATO, which stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but is pronounced NAY-toe
  • IUPAC, which stands for International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, but is pronounced I-U-pak

An abbreviation is written differently from the expanded form but is pronounced the same. Examples:

  • Mr., which stands for mister and is pronounced mister
  • ft., which stands for feet and is pronounced feet
  • etc., which stands for et cetera and is pronounced et cetera

Whether the form is pronounced as a “word” or as letter names or as some combination of the two is a red herring. The key difference is whether the abbreviated form is pronounced differently from the expanded form.

  • 16
    Splitting hairs, but - an acronym is where it is pronounced as a new word (eg Nato, Laser, Scuba) an initialism is where the letters are pronounced, (eg FBI, CIA), IUPAC is a bit of both
    – mgb
    Commented May 22, 2011 at 4:34
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    I put “(as the term is commonly used)” for exactly this reason—some people hold this bizarre distinction in meaning which is not supported by usage.
    – nohat
    Commented May 22, 2011 at 5:14
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    @mgb people holding bizarre distinction, probably not bizarre people holding distinctions, most likely not any bizarre distinction that is holding down people.
    – Kris
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 12:00
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    I know that standards were looser in the early days, but '(as the term is commonly used)' needs justifying. Indeed, I'd say this answer is incorrect. Most dictionaries (ODO, CDO, AHDEL, Collins, Farlex ...) include the 'pronounced as [if it were actually] a word' restriction in the first sense defined. Thus 'BBC' (pronounced differently from the 'British ...') fails to meet this criterion. Commented Mar 19, 2016 at 1:40
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    @CharlesRoper I don't have any statistics, but a number of years ago I did some searches on Google books for "is an acronym" and sifted through pages and pages of results, looking at the string that preceded the match, and found that about 40% of results were strings that would be pronounced by naming the letters rather than "as a word". This indicated to me that a large percentage of users of this word don't make the distinction that some dictionaries seem so hung up on. FWIW, Merriam-Webster is not one of them: m-w.com/dictionary/acronym their definition includes FBI as an example
    – nohat
    Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 0:16

An acronym is a type of abbreviation that is pronounced as a word (e.g. SCUBA, LASER).

The following article is worth a look:

The Difference Between Acronyms and Abbreviations (and Acrostics)

  • As the link above is now broken, this article may be worth a look instead: acronym.guide/…
    – AJT
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 17:19

An acronym (sometimes called an initialism) is simply a word formed by taking letters (usually the first) of each word in a phrase to form an abbreviation. Acronyms are thus a subset of abbreviations.

Examples of acronyms: CEO (cheif executive officer), AIDS (Acquired immune deficiency syndrome), FAQ (frequently asked questions), CD-ROM (compact-disk read-only memory)

(Notice that they may be pronounced as words themselves or spelt out depending on the case.)

Examples of abbreviations that are not acronyms: Mr. (Mister), Prof. (Professor), op. (opus), mm (millimeters),

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    I would dispute that an acronym is the same as an initialism, and that e.g. "CEO" is an acronym. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Initialism#Nomenclature
    – mmyers
    Commented Oct 6, 2010 at 21:20
  • @mmyers - Good link. Noldorin's answer is what I was leaning towards, but it is good to know it isn't as cut and dry as one may think.
    – Chris
    Commented Oct 6, 2010 at 21:26
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    I agree with Noldorin’s answer because so many people fail to realize that the important thing about how acronym is commonly used is that they are pronounced differently from the thing they stand for, not whether they are pronounced as names of letters, or as a normal word, or some combination of both.
    – nohat
    Commented Oct 6, 2010 at 22:06
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    @mmyers, @Chris Dwyer: Indeed, they are often two different terms. However, they are very often defined (and used) in the same way, just so you're aware. :)
    – Noldorin
    Commented Oct 7, 2010 at 18:18
  • @nohat: Thanks. That's exactly the misconception I'm trying to shed.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Oct 7, 2010 at 18:18

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