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<abbr> vs <acronym>

6:29 pm on Oct 20, 2006 (gmt 0)

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WebmasterWorld Senior Member drdoc is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

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According to Merriam-Webster:
a shortened form of a written word or phrase used in place of the whole <amt is an abbreviation for amount>

a word (as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term; also : an abbreviation (as FBI) formed from initial letters

an abbreviation formed from initial letters

W3C HTML 4.01 Specification [w3.org]:

Indicates an abbreviated form (e.g., WWW, HTTP, URI, Mass., etc.).
Indicates an acronym (e.g., WAC, radar, etc.).
The ABBR and ACRONYM elements allow authors to clearly indicate occurrences of abbreviations and acronyms. Western languages make extensive use of acronyms such as "GmbH", "NATO", and "F.B.I.", as well as abbreviations like "M.", "Inc.", "et al.", "etc.".

So, what exactly is an abbreviation? Let's start with clear-cut abbreviations as per the dictionary definition:

  • amt (= amount)
  • mgmt (= management)
  • Inc. (= Incorporated)
  • etc (= et cetera)

    And let's do the same with some acronyms:

  • laser (= Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation)
  • snafu (= Situation Normal: All <bleep>ed Up)
  • scuba (= Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus)
  • radar (= Radio Detection and Ranging)

    Although originally normal initialisms, the words above are today so common that we consider them "normal", without considering the fact that they were once initialisms like any other. And, it is really initialisms are what mess things up and get confusing. Technically, all initialisms are abbreviations. However, most initialisms are better seen as acronyms. When to use which?

    Semantically, we really need a non-existent HTML element -- <initials> or <initialism> -- for absolute correctness. But, in its absense, use this rule of thumb: If an initilism is typically pronounced as a word, it is definitely an acronym. If it is mere an initialism, treat it as an abbreviation.

    Examples of initialisms better used with <acronym>:

  • NATO (or even "Nato")
  • NASA (or even "Nasa")
  • UNICEF (or even "Unicef")
  • GIF (or even "gif")
  • JPEG (or even "jpeg"), although technically being an acronym-initialism hybrid
  • RAM
  • NIC
  • DOS

    Examples of initialisms best used with <abbr>, due to being spelled out:

  • FBI
  • CNN
  • BBC
  • HTML
  • CSS
  • PHP
  • CD
  • DVD
  • KGB
  • GI

    To ensure proper handling by aural user agents, you should also define the following styles (or equivalents) for inclusion in your aural stylesheet, and apply to elements as needed, even if pronunciation may seem crystal clear to you.

    acronym { speak: normal; }
    abbr { speak: normal; }
    abbr.initialism { speak: spell-out; }
  • 7:59 am on Oct 23, 2006 (gmt 0)

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    WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

    joined:Mar 14, 2003
    votes: 1

    Great post DrDoc, although the css use of 'speak:' is not currently supported by JAWS - I tried it a couple of weeks ago.

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