Wednesday 03 July 2002

Accessibility tip 12: Define acronyms

Today’s accessibility tip recommends using the <acronym> tag to provide a tooltip that explains the meaning of an acronym or abbreviation. I’ve never thought of myself as an acronym exponent, at least not to the extent of Mark (“50 acronyms and abbreviations on this weblog last month”) Pilgrim.

But I took the trouble of looking back over last month’s posts and surprised myself with a quite respectable score of 29: HTML, XHTML, CSS, IE6, MT, IRC, FTP, U Blog, QDB, GMing, DMing, SBS, XML, DOCTYPE, W3C, WaSP, Wi-Fi, 802.11b, NYT, PONR, VCR, CEO, DTD, RSS, Bb, INFJ, INTP, ENFP. Believe it or not, the acronym I used most in June turned out to be AKMA. (Put it down to my desire to catapult our illustrious pastor to the top of the Teoma results list—and to the fact that Bb spent much of the month preparing to move then moving house.)

I also modified my screen and print style sheets to produce the dotted underline (in all browsers) and to automatically spell out acronyms when printing from Mozilla and Opera.

In the course of adding the acronym definitions to all the items listed above I discovered that Dreamweaver has not just an Acronym object but an Abbreviation object too. Curious about the difference between them, I checked the examples at They turned out to be less than helpful.

Although the OED defines an acronym as “a word formed from the initial letters of other words,” incorrectly identifies WWW and SNCF (the French National Railway) as abbreviations rather than acronyms. At least they get abbr. correct (yes, it stands for abbreviation). On second thoughts though, I think that U Blog and Bb might be abbreviations. And I’ve noticed that IE6 doesn’t recognize abbreviations though Opera and Mozilla do. Well, at least we’re having fun.



It looks to me like the W3C thinks that initialisms (things meant to be spelled out when spoken) are abbreviations rather than acronyms. Given that most definitions of acronym include "word", I'm inclined to agree. I don't think something which can't be pronounced is a word.

You aren't going to start marking up HTML the first time you use it in every post, are you? That strikes me as a slippery slope. Next thing you know, you'll be linking every third word to

Posted by: Phil Ringnalda on 3 July 2002 at 12:24 AM

Ahah. The ol' acronym vs. abbreviation debate.

Personally, I follow definitions like this (Cambridge Dictionary): "acronym: an abbreviation consisting of the first letters of each word in the name of something, pronounced as a word"

Initials that are pronouncable as a word.

So, I'd also identify WWW and SNCF abbreviations rather than acronyms. (Well, until the day they're pronounced "wuhwuhwuh" and "sinkuf".)

All acronyms are abbreviations, but not all abbreviations are acronyms. Or something like that.

Posted by: Marcus on 3 July 2002 at 12:33 AM

Note how I artfully bypassed the whole abbreviation - vs - acronym debate. There is an ABBR tag too, but it's less well-supported (thank you Microsoft). Arguing about when to use ABBR and when to use ACRONYM is the 21st century equivalent of arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. If you care, has the answer.

I like to think of myself as semantically pure (hell, I used the KBD tag yesterday), but even I don't care about ABBR.

Posted by: Mark Pilgrim on 3 July 2002 at 01:58 AM

Bugger all. has the answer.

Posted by: Mark Pilgrim on 3 July 2002 at 01:58 AM

Actually SNCF is essennseheff ;-) aka Sur Neuf Cinq Faineants (Among Nine, Five Lazy people)...
It does match the definition of "an abbreviation consisting of the first letters of each word in the name of something", but to pronounce that as a word, well, it requires practice...
On the other hand, while U Blog seems definitely to be an abbreviation, Bb (or our ubiquitous BB, aka Brigitte Bardot) seem to be rather acronyms. And BB, if not Bb, IS something (well, was)...

Posted by: dda on 3 July 2002 at 02:02 AM

[Removed (off-topic)]

Posted by: rold on 14 January 2003 at 05:41 AM

[Removed (off-topic)]

Posted by: rold on 14 January 2003 at 05:46 AM

[Removed (off-topic)]

Posted by: rold on 14 January 2003 at 05:55 AM

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour