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RE: Acronyms vs Abbreviations - was: New tool on Accessify - Acronym Generator

From: Jon Hanna <jon@spin.ie>
Date: Wed, 23 Apr 2003 12:18:35 +0100
To: <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>

> So...is the definition of - and the line between - acronym and
> abbreviation blurred, or is it just me ?

Yes it is blurred. The English language has its vagaries and one of those is
that there is a commonly accepted definition of acronym that includes any
acrostic abbreviation, and another commonly accepted definition that only
refers to those acrostic abbreviations that are pronounced as if they are
words. While the vagaries of English lead to great poetry they also lead to
holy wars when technical specs don't account for them and give an exact
definition of how they are using the term.

The definition that acronyms must be words in their own right appears to be
the most correct definition, based both on the etymology of the word, its
similarity to terms like "homonym", "hypernym" and "antonym", and a survey
of several dictionary definitions I made (and have no intention of making
again), in which the majority, but not all, definitions were the stricter

Of course a correct definition of acronym doesn't necessarily yield a
correct definition of <acronym>. Just as the correct spelling of "referrer"
leads to incorrect HTTP headers.

About the best reasoning I've come across as to which definition should be
used in the context of the HTML element is that the common internet TLAs
(Three Letter Acronyms) like "LOL", "WWW", "FTP" and "FYI" aren't acronyms
by the second definition, and hence the former definition could be argued to
be the one used on the Internet. Of course "TLA" is often used to refer to
abbreviations that have four or more letters, so it is hardly the perfect
watermark for good usage. It's perhaps worth noting that one of the
dictionary definitions I came across gave the stricter definition, but then
gave the weaker one as a piece of jargon used in computing (sorry I can't
remember where this was).

Two more practical resolutions to the difficulty in interpretation:

1. While the HTML spec does not state clearly which definition of "acronym"
it intends the <acronym> element to markup one of its examples, "F.B.I"
clearly only fits the first definition.

2. Many are spoken by some people as words, hence meeting both definitions,
and by some people as letters, hence meeting only the former. "SQL" and
"ASP" being two such examples. This creates difficulties in determining if
an abbreviation is an acronym by the second definition that do not exist
with the first.

As such the <acronym>NSPCC</acronym> is *probably* preferable to
Received on Wednesday, 23 April 2003 07:13:33 GMT

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