The Difference Between an Acronym and an Abbreviation

Ten to one, if you’re posting an article, creating a web page, or just coding some HTML; and you’re about to code in a <abbr> tag to let people not “in the know” get what exactly it is that you’re talking about, you actually should be using the <acronym> tag instead. Maybe you’re not even doing it for the people, and you’re actually just a benevolent person that cares about a truly semantic web and wants the bots to also grasp just what it is that’s being said.

Either way, it’s good to know when to use an <abbr> tag and when to use an <acronym> tag. At face value, <abbr> is for abbreviations, and <acronym> is for, well, acronyms. ‘But what’s the difference?’ Joe Blogg asks…

NASA is an acronym. BBC is another. But gov’t and Mr. aren’t – they’re abbreviations. In Grammar 101 it was easy to tell the difference, but in real life, it can get kind of confusing. But the general rule is, if it’s pronounced by spelling it out, it’s an acronym. If it doesn’t have a period, it’s an acronym. But most importantly, if you can spell it another way, chances are it’s an abbreviation.

Great. So now we know that R.I.P. is an abbreviation, and that CIA is an acronym. But what difference does it really make which tag you use? After all, 999 times out of 1000, you’re going to want them to look the same to your end users, after all, it’s just a semantic thing – nothing important… isn’t it?

Semantics. That’s the key. We’ve discussed the topic of a Semantic Web in great detail in the past, and basically it always boils down to “it ain’t gonna happen.” But you can do your share, and even if it doesn’t make a difference to Mr. Eng “Lish” Bot if it’s an abbreviation or an acronym right now, ten years down the road, it just might. You never know when a truly Semantic Web will become a reality, and when the time comes, why not be ready? It’s not costing you anything extra, all you need to do is pay a little bit more attention to your HTML markup, and make the right decisions along the way….

Quick Review

Do you know your abbreviations and acronyms? Are the following acronyms or abbreviations? What do they stand for? Take your best guess, and hover over them to find out if you’re right!

  • NSA
  • Scuba
  • PHP
  • Ltd
  • DVD 
  • Laser
  • PBS
  • Dr.
  • i.e.
  • e.g.

As a quick peek at the source code quicly reveals, the only ones you would ever actually provide captions for are the acronyms, and not the abbreviations, most of which are know to everyone and considered a core part of the language (as opposed to the acronyms, most of which are proper nouns or refer to proper nouns). When in doubt, stick to <acronym> and save yourself a boatload of semantic trouble.

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  • 3 thoughts on “The Difference Between an Acronym and an Abbreviation

    1. Man, when semantic web becomes reality us foreigners with bad English on our web pages will be up for a real challenge.

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