linguist • writer • editor • lecturer • broadcaster
[Friday 25 January, 2013]
This is a very general term, and several types can be distinguished: see separate entries on acronym, blend, and clipping. There are also various ways of classifying them, such as whether their pronunciation is letter-by-letter (RIP) or syllabic (ad), and whether they are used only in writing (Mr, St, Stn, Res Inst) or in both writing and speech (Fred, NATO, eg). Notice which words are omitted from the full version (PhD - no of). PhD is read back-to-front (as is MD).
Note also the problems of usage sometimes encountered. If we read MP as letters, we must precede it by an; if we read it ‘in full’, we must precede it by a. The full form of a word is often unacceptable - illustrated in the sample sentence by ‘telephone-in’. If we expand NATO, we have to insert the. Some abbreviations can combine with affixes (ex-POW, ICBMs). There is considerable usage variation over whether written abbreviations should contain full stops: the older practice is to use the punctuation; modern practice increasingly avoids it.
All uses of English seem to make use of abbreviations, so starting a collection is not difficult. Students could look out for instances where there is frequent use of abbreviations, and evaluate the questions of overuse and intelligibility. Specialist magazines are a good place to look - a computer magazine should generate a sample very quickly. What charities does the student know (NSPCC, RSPCA)? For spoken language, official spokespersons (government, trade union) can be a good source. There could also be a collection of the abbreviations used in school. Many dictionaries and encyclopedias contain a list of abbreviations. Other sources: the list of abbreviations often given at the front of a published work, such as a reference book. The large collection referred to is the Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations Dictionary (Gale, 2010, 40th edn).
Some other tasks: making up facetious abbreviations (SAPS - ‘School Abbreviation Protection Society’) - compare well known ones such as TGIF (‘Thank God it’s Friday’), CMG (‘Call me God’, properly ‘Commander of St Michael and St George’), and those used in the highly creative world of texting; collecting abbreviations which are more well known than their full forms (AIDS); finding abbreviation sequences (IBM PC); looking for variation among newspapers, especially tabloid vs quality press; comparing types of abbreviation in different subject areas (eg history, chemistry); for students studying a foreign language, how many foreign abbreviations do they know?
CGEL App I.73-6; ET 15

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