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Different Kinds of English Language Abbreviations

written by: John Garger • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 2/8/2012

Often confused with acronyms, abbreviations are an attempt to simply our lives by shortening words and phrases to their bare minimums. Learn about the different kinds of abbreviations found in the English language.

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    Modern technologies such as computers and cell phones have had a monumental impact in reducing our need for the written word. Many centuries ago, writing was a luxury of the educated and literate and represented the only means of keeping permanent records of debts, laws, history, and literature. Since parchment was a precious commodity, medieval scribes would find interesting ways to shorten common phrases to economize and speed up the process of recording tedious information. Today, the fields of technology, law, medicine, and business especially have added so many abbreviations to English lexicon that it seems possible to carry out whole conversations without using a single full word. In fact some abbreviations have become so commonplace that they are considered words themselves.

    The orthography, or acceptable methods, of abbreviations fall into six categories.

    • The first uses capital letters and points (periods) as in M.B.A for Master’s of Business Administration or B.S. for Bachelor’s of Science.
    • The second uses only capital letters as in ABC for American Broadcasting Company or NCAA for National Collegiate Athletic Association.
    • The third kind uses lower case letters with points for a formula such as e.g. for exempli gratia and without points for abbreviations such as radar (formerly RADAR), which stands for Radio Detection And Ranging.
    • The fourth type of abbreviation uses mixed capital and lower case letters without points with lower case letters usually reserved for grammatical words such as 'of' in MoMA, for Museum of Modern Art.
    • The fifth type uses internal capital letters as in CompTech for Computer Technology.
    • The sixth, and, final type, is a hybrid form of the others and includes B.Sci. for Bachelor’s of Science and Ph.D. for Philosophiae Doctor (Latin for Doctor of Philosophy).

    To further complicate matters, abbreviations that function as words can be divided into multiple categories. An abbreviation belongs to the first category if it can not be pronounced, such as ABC, to use the example cited above. This type of abbreviation is called an initialism. The second type, an acronym, is an abbreviation that can be pronounced such as radar.

    A third type, known as a clipping, is a shortened version of a longer word such as con for confidence (as in confidence man). The fourth and final type is known as a blend, where two words are literally blended together as in brunch, to indicate the meal between breakfast and lunch. To make matters more complicated, some abbreviations can be either spoken letter by letter or pronounced such as VAT (Value Added Tax).

    The Internet has added a lexicon of abbreviations that seem to have taken on a life of their own with such common uses as lol (laugh out loud), brb (be right back), afk (away from keyboard), and a/s/l (age/sex/location). It seems we are not so far removed from our ancient brethren in trying to save space and time by using commonly recognized abbreviations to express meaning in a digital world.