Using Short Form Words Online: a Primer

CTA. HTML. e.g. So many of the words we use online every day are acronyms, abbreviations, or initialisms.

We use them all the time, yet most of us aren’t sure what the standards are around presenting these types of words.

Should we spell them out the first time we use them in a piece of writing? How should we punctuate them: U.S.A. or USA? What if we want to pluralize them: is it LPs or LP’s or L.P.’s? Do you, as part of my audience for this post, even know what LP means? Should I mark that up with the HTML abbr tag?

If all this seems like a massive headache, relax. In this post, we’ll work out what’s what—and what you need to know to make decisions that let you communicate appropriately with your audience.

First up, though, a warning. Be aware that the answers to any questions about short forms will depend on the style guide that’s used in your part of the world. While there are generally accepted usages, which I’ll try to explain here, short form usage varies from place to place. Check your locally used style guide if you think what I have here is wrong!

Using short forms

Firstly, when would we use a short form?

You could use it to save space and time—it’s a lot easier to write and read HTML than hypertext markup language, I’m sure we all agree.

You could also use it to create a sense of affinity with your audience. If I wrote Cascading Style Sheets rather than CSS in every case, you’d probably wonder what was wrong with me, and who I thought you were. Common language, including common short forms, can help to unite you with whoever’s reading your text.

The flip side of this is that spelling out short form words your users already know can make your brand seem separate from them. It can make them feel like they mustn’t be the kind of person you serve.

So be judicious in your use of acronyms, and be careful to spell them out when necessary—but only then.

Now, let’s look at the nuts and bolts of using certain short forms.

Abbreviations

“Abbreviation” is a catch-all term for shortened words that contain:

  • the first letter of the word
  • plus other letters
  • but not the last letter.

So Rev., e.g., and abbr. are all abbreviations.

Punctuation

Punctuating abbreviations is simple.

If they’re written:

  • in all lowercase (like e.g., which means for example, and is taken from the latin exempli gratia),/li>
  • or with an initial capital and then all lowercase letter (like Jan. for January)

then we use stops. Where? At the end of each abbreviated word (which is why e.g. gets two stops).

If they use more that one capital letter (like PhD), they don’t get stops. Simple.

Initialisms and Acronyms

An initialism is a kind of abbreviation that consists of a string of initials—the first letters of the words in a phrase.

For example, HTML and CSS are initialisms.

An acronym is a kind of abbreviation that takes the initial letters from the words in a phrase, but, importantly, runs them together so they’re pronounced as a word.

This means that words like scuba and ANZAC are acronyms.

Note that these distinctions are often ignored or not made by official language references, though (helpful, no?), which is why most of us would call a word like CSS an acronym.

Punctuation

These words receive no punctuation. That’s easy to remember, but means you might find yourself making a few errors here and there.

The word t.v., for example, is an abbreviation, so technically speaking, it should be written in lowercase with stops, not as TV.

“But,” you might say, “everyone writes it as TV! Can the whole world be wrong?”

I think we all know the answer to that question.

On a less existential level, though, there comes a point where conventions bow to culture. If your audience expects to see TV written as such, then you should probably write it like that. Language is always evolving, after all, and it evolves differently within different groups and areas.

Other short forms

There are two other short forms we should mention.

The first is contractions, which contain at least the first and last letters of a word. Like Dept or Mr or Pty Ltd. Technically speaking, these words should receive no punctuation (so it’s not Dept., for example), and their capitalization varies on a case by case basis.

The second is “symbols” like km, Hz, g, and MB. My style guide describes these as “internationally recognized representations of units of measurement, or of concepts” and says that for this reason, they aren’t punctuated. Again, capitalization depends on the symbol in question.

Aside from these, and in case you’re wondering, there is, according to Wikipedia, “no agreement on what to call abbreviations whose pronunciation involves the combination of letter names and words, such as JPEG.”

It’s thing like this that remind us not to get too uppity about language and grammar rules…

Pluralizing short forms

Being a stickler for pluralization (no, I can’t believe I just admitted that either), I can’t understand much of the confusion around pluralizing short form words.

It’s the same as for long form words: add an s.

If you’re writing TV, it’s TVs. If you’re writing t.v., it is, unfortunately, t.v.s (sorry—them’s the breaks; in this case, I’d be writing “televisions” to avoid confusion).

The only time you’d use an apostrophe would be if you were making the abbreviation, acronym, or initialism possessive:

  • the CD’s case
  • HTML’s creators
  • CSS’s detractors
  • the t.v.’s aerial

Tagging short forms

When acronyms came up in a post comment here on SitePoint recently, one reader suggested using the HTML abbr tag to mark them up.

The tag can be used to mark up abbreviations and acronyms, and doing so gives useful information not only to users, but also to search engine robots, screen readers, spell checkers and translators.

Paired with the global title attribute, your abbr tag can also be used to show the fully spelled out word to users who mouse over the tagged short form word.

This seems like it’d be a nice, unintrusive solution for cases where you think the vast majority of users will know the meaning of a short form you’re using, but you don’t want your message to be unintelligible to those who don’t.

The only problem I can see with it is that many less-technical users may not realize that an acronym can be moused over for more information, so they may not use the functionality you’re building in here anyway. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing—just keep those potential limitations in mind.

Okay, that’s it for this primer. But I’ll bet you’ll have a few questions, disagreements, or conundrums about short forms now. Perhaps you’ll also have advice for other readers. Let us know in the comments.

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  • ralphm

    Thanks, Georgina. It’s nice to see topics like this being covered in a web arena like SitePoint, as they tend to get lost amid all the enthusiasm for new technologies.

    Technically, the missing letters within contractions should be indicated by an apostrophe (e.g. M’r). Thankfully, though, tradition has spared us from that chore.