I was playing a game over the weekend where you're allowed to give a one-word clue. Someone said "RNA" and a disagreement followed as to whether or not it's a single word. At the time, we misidentified it as an acronym, but reading here I see that it's an initialism, which to my mind makes the difference.

Made me wonder the same thing about a hyphenated word -- "mother-in-law" seems like a good example.

I know this is a silly question, but thoughts?

Clarification: the main question at hand is, "is 'RNA' one word or three?"

  • 'RNA' is counted as a 'word' in the technical sense: a string of characters delimited by spaces. So is 'mother-in-law'. (Even 'mil').
    – Kris
    May 14, 2012 at 17:06
  • This sounds more like a question about the rules of the game than about English. Migrate to BoardGames.SE? ;^) In all seriousness, though, some games – most notably Scrabble – do have different notions of what qualifies as a "word."
    – J.R.
    May 14, 2012 at 20:31

3 Answers 3


Initialisms and acronyms are words.

RNA is one word. It is not composed of the words "R", "N", and "A" because those individual words mean their respective letters, and RNA's meaning is not its sequence of letters. It is certainly not composed of the words "ribonucleic" and "acid" because those words are neither written nor pronounced in RNA -- they're the meaning of the word RNA.

The creation of initialisms and acronyms is just another form of blending. If smog is one word, so is RNA.


One could argue that it should count as two for the purposes of the game, since ribonucleic acid is obviously two words, and this is just an abbreviation for it.

One could have all sorts of slang and abbreviations like ModCons or GenPop (for modern conveniences, normally used with a space, and general population, normally not used with a space) which you may or may not want to allow.

I would say RNA as it stands is a single "word", and generously allow it.

Off topic: if one were to allow German words - you could have all kinds of wonderful fun ;-)


I am not entirely sure what the question is, but yes - RNA is an initialism because you say it by pronouncing the initials R, N, and A. Nato (or NATO for Americans) is an acronym because it is pronounced as a word - nay tow.

As for mother-in-law, I would argue for it being one word, as it is used as a single unit of meaning: "I have an ugly car/cat/plant/picture/desk/mother-in-law

  • Sure your mil is not around overhearing us?
    – Kris
    May 14, 2012 at 17:02

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