Acronyms And Abbreviations

When to use <acronym> and <abbr> in writing HTML.

12th December 2004 · Last updated: 5th October 2016

Acronyms · Abbreviations · Conclusion · Comments

I think I finally have this one crystal clear after looking at words in a dictionary. I noticed the authors used both to define seemingly identical words made from the capital letters of other words. There's always been a lot of debate about this, which merely serves to confuse the poor web designer. There are also two main things to consider when choosing to use either <acronym> and <abbr>:

  1. IE6 does not support <abbr>
  2. XHTML 2.0 does not feature <acronym>

Technically you can argue that <acronym> isn't needed, as acronyms are also abbreviations! But the two tags must have been created for a reason in HTML. There must be a clear difference between them. And there is.


You use <acronym> when a word is made from the capital letters of a group of words and is pronounced as a new word. Imagine a fictitious company called Exciting Revolutionary Artistic Software. This can be shortened to ERAS. Now since the clearest way to pronounce that is "Eras", we have an acronym.

If the company had been called Zoe's Xylophonic Music Shop, we would have ZXMS. That can't be spoken as a word, so it is spoken letter by letter - hence it isn't an acronym.

Another example: RAF is pronounced letter by letter ("R, A, F"), so it is an abbreviation. If the word was RAFFLE though, it would be an acronym.


These are when a group of words are shortened, but you have to pronounce the result letter by letter, or it makes sense to do so. Eg: the term for hours between midnight and midday is "am" (from "ante meridiem"). But we don't pronounce it as in the words "I am", but as "A M".

Abbreviations are also shortened words like "Sgt" instead of "Sergeant".


I now see that many groups of letters I had been convinced were acronyms were really abbreviations, and should not have been coded with the <acronym> tag. These include PHP, HTML, XHTML and CSS! Yet it is common practice to mark these up as acronyms. (Remember, they can't be acronyms, because you cannot pronounce them as words.)

The problem comes with groups of letters some people pronounce, while others spell out letter by letter. There we must make an educated guess, or simply go with the most common rendition. For example MySQL - I say it "My S Q L", while others prefer "My Sequel". Likewise "SCSI" I have always pronounced "S C S I", but I believe the common pronunciation is actually "Scuzzy".

So really, it's quite simple. Both tags are necessary and should be used accordingly. Any browser (IE6) or markup language (XHTML 2.0) that doesn't allow for both tags to be used is simply letting us down.

Comments (17)

Comments are locked on this topic. Thanks to everyone who posted a comment.

  1. dusoft:
    I agree, but that's the point. You have to use acronym, because abbr is not supported in IE. (for now)

    Posted on 13 December 2004 at 11:41 am
  2. Chris Hester:
    I disagree. Firefox and Opera support <abbr>. IE will simply show the text unstyled. Besides, surely the point is to *mark up* our documents correctly? Say I write a script to print out all the abbreviations on a page, or highlight them in some way. If everyone uses <acronym> *because of IE6* then my script won't work. (Why does that browser always have to drag down the web? We can't use <abbr> because of IE6, we can't use PNG images because of IE6, we can't use CSS selectors widely because of IE6, the list goes on and on.)

    Posted on 13 December 2004 at 1:01 pm
  3. Chris Hester:
    Also, it is surely wrong to use the wrong tag. If the word simply *isn't* an acronym, don't mark it up as one because of IE6!

    Posted on 13 December 2004 at 1:03 pm
  4. Ro:
    "...crystal clear after looking at words in a dictionary."

    Care to cite your definition resources?

    I don't agree with your interpretation of acronym at all.

    Posted on 14 December 2004 at 11:22 am
  5. Chris Hester:
    The source was the Collins English Dictionary. I will show some examples it gives later. For now, consider that the W3C agrees with me:

    Indicates an abbreviated form (e.g., WWW, HTTP, URI, Mass., etc.).
    Indicates an acronym (e.g., WAC, radar, etc.)."

    Also this Evolt article appears to agree with me too (though I was foolish enough to once think differently):

    "HTML is not an acronym..."

    Posted on 14 December 2004 at 1:27 pm
  6. Chris Hester:
    Examples from the Collins dictionary. Note how the first is pronounced "Acas", not "A, C, A, S", hence it is an acronym.

    n. *acronym* for Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service

    *abbreviation* for Amateur Swimming Association

    n. *acronym* for Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen

    *abbreviation* for auxiliary

    n. *acronym* for North Atlantic Treaty Organization

    *abbreviation* for National Coal Board

    *abbreviation* for northeast(ern)

    *abbreviation* for New England

    *abbreviation* for United States of America

    Take the last one for example. If we pronounced it "oosa" then it would be an acronym. But we don't - the letters are spelt out, not said like a word.

    I'm convinced the above examples clearly show that pronounceable abbreviations are classed as acronyms - the dictionary even adds "n." for "noun".

    If anyone disagrees, please state why, along with your source.

    Posted on 14 December 2004 at 7:31 pm
  7. Ro:
    Thanks for the examples.

    "…acronyms are also abbreviations"

    That said (by you), indicates that just because it is listed as an abbreviation doesn't mean it's not an acronym.

    According to many dictionaries, there are four sub-sets of the acronym definition: Acronyms pronounced as words, Acronyms pronounced as letters (initialisms), Acronyms pronounced as a combination of both, and Acronyms including non-initial letters (portmanteaus). []

    Further research concludes that many prestigious style guides for writers cover these types of acronyms as well as suggestions on how to translate them for printed media. It's interesting to note what these style guides consider to be an acronym. []

    Finally, just for fun, lesser publicized dictionaries mostly agree that an acronym can be an unpronounceable word. Examples include: IEEE is an acronym for Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, LRC is an acronym for Library Resource Center, and WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). []

    Posted on 15 December 2004 at 5:32 am
  8. Chris Hester:
    This excerpt from your first link is interesting:

    "There is debate over whether the word acronym can be applied to any set of initials. Some people insist an acronym is only a set of initials which is pronounceable as a word. Some dictionary definitions can be interpreted to support this view. Under this view, sets of initials like "BBC" and "IBM" are initialisms and not acronyms. On the other hand, under the restrictive definition of 'acronym' there is no English word to describe all strings of initials that are used in place of the full words. For many people, the word acronym is used for all such sets of initials regardless of whether they are pronounced as a word or as the names of the letters in sequence."
    (Webster's Online Dictionary)

    This would indicate that my view was correct, but also other views are correct too, where any group of letters would be a valid acronym. By this definition, the situation becomes confusing to the point where no-one can say exactly what is and what isn't an acronym. In other words, the term is meaningless. Perhaps the writers of XHTML 2.0 have got it right - just define everything as an abbreviation to avoid this mess.

    On your Google search, one definition puts it:

    "The requirement of forming a word is what distinguishes an acronym from an abbreviation. Thus modem [modulator-demodulator] is an acronym, and AES [Audio Engineering Society] is an abbreviation. [Unsubstantiated rumor has it that the word "acronym" itself is an acronym, created from the phrase "abbreviating by cropping remainders off names to yield meaning" -- but it has never been confirmed.]"

    Interesting! But following the Webster's page, isn't AES also an acronym?

    Another definition via Google defines it thus:

    "an abbreviation which is made up of the initial letters of a group of words, and is pronounced as a single word, for example: RAM (Random Access Memory)."

    That's what I thought. Yet a later definition adds that an acronym is also formed in order to convey a message, hence IMHO is an acronym!

    Posted on 15 December 2004 at 10:42 am
  9. Stu Nicholls:
    I have also come across this ~

    An acronym is a label formed from the beginnings of words (Greek: acro [head] and nym [word]) -- or very rarely, from letters in the middle of words. There is no requirement that an acronym be pronounceable as a normal word (this is a curious myth perpetuated by American dictionaries): IBM is just as much an acronym as LASER.

    Posted on 15 December 2004 at 2:06 pm
  10. Chris Hester:
    Here we go again... :-)

    Posted on 17 December 2004 at 2:37 pm
  11. Moose:
    Such markup is fine, but I would not overuse it.

    Posted on 1 7 December 2004 at 8:17 pm
  12. Moose:
    As for the link in your last post, Chris, I would take what this man says with a keg of salt, not just a grain.

    The should/must preachings, given their content in this case, do more harm than good.


    Posted on 17 December 2004 at 8:19 pm
  13. Chris Hester:
    I thought he defined the tags quite well. The W3C could use someone like that.

    I am now tempted to use solely <abbr>, and to hell with IE.

    Posted on 17 December 2004 at 8:59 pm
  14. Moose:
    Yes, to hell. But why only in this respect? :)


    p.s. /me waits when C.H decides to switch to UTF

    Posted on 18 December 2004 at 7:37 pm
  15. PenguinWrangler:
    "SCSI" Procunciation

    Personally, I prefer to pronounce it "sek-see" as in "sexy". ;-) So if you don't like saying "Scuzzy", just say "Sexy".

    Posted on 21 December 2004 at 7:59 am
  16. SirPavlova:
    "There is no requirement that an acronym be pronounceable as a normal word (this is a curious myth perpetuated by American dictionaries): IBM is just as much an acronym as LASER."

    Given that the W3C is an largely an American body, and that the spelling of attributes etc. in (X)HTML is American, surely the American definition of "acronym" is the one intended by the spec?

    Also, if that quote is right, either <acronym> or <abbr> must be redundant? After all, that's what an abbreviation is, there's no argument on that is there?

    Posted on 9 January 2005 at 2:39 pm
  17. Bill Hargen:
    Maybe a better question is: why does (X)HTML want to distinguish between acronyms and abbreviations? If you accept the definition that bases the distinction on whether you pronounce it or spell it, then maybe the intent is that browsers that do text-to-speech conversion would know whether to say it or spell it.

    Of course, there will always the odd cases like "MySQL" (which I say as "my S Q L") and "IEEE" (which I say as "I triple E").

    Posted on 16 February 2005 at 6:38 pm