Submitted by mike2 on February 1, 2009

Acronyms, Abbreviations, and BBC News

I’ve noticed in the past that the BBC News Web site seems to be rather hit-or-miss with its use of acronyms and abbreviations. One I see repeatedly is its use of “Nasa” for “NASA,” and another I noticed today is “Farc” instead of “FARC” for the Colombian guerrilla group. At the same time, UK, TV, PM, US, and even BBC are treated as I would expect. Can anyone explain this beyond “the editors are twits”?

The abbreviation which prompted me to post this, though, is their habit of abbreviating “Sri Lanka” as “S Lanka.” Why would anyone think it necessary to drop those two characters?

By way of introduction, my name is Mike, and I was born and raised in southern California. I’m a survivor of public schools through high school graduation in 1978. I know full well that my command of the English language is far from perfect, and I do not attempt to correct errors in others’ informal writing or speech, but journalists, authors, and others who write for public consumption I hold to a higher standard, and are therefore considered fair game. :-)

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The UK Guardian newspaper style guide also uses Farc and Nasa.

They say this:
Use all capitals if an abbreviation is pronounced as the individual letters (an initialism): BBC, CEO, US, VAT, etc; if it is an acronym (pronounced as a word) spell out with initial capital, eg Nasa, Nato, Unicef, unless it can be considered to have entered the language as an everyday word, such as awol, laser and, more recently, asbo, pin number and sim card. Note that pdf and plc are lowercase.

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In the main, the UK media uses upper and lower for proper nouns you can say (eg Nasa) and upper case for those you can't (eg RNLI). In print there's a second reason: typography and ease of reading. Capital letters are thought to slow reading down in body copy and are considered ugly in headlines (in UK newspapers only the initial word and proper nouns are capped). So it makes sense, where possible to use acronyms as upper and lower where possible because (a) that's how people say them and (b) they look better and are easier to read.

On the subject of using acronyms as an organisation intends: where does it end? Should we pronounce countries as they are referred to by nationals? I'm sure Paree for Paris won't catch on in English any more than the French are going to start saying London instead of Londres.

As long as everyone in a given community of interest understands the conventions, we all understand each other.

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So when the British presents a list of organizations (organisations), they do this: FBI, Nasa, CIA, Noaa, Nato, IATA, Icao, IMF, Navy Seal, ... ?

Kind of silly, inconsistent, and hard to read...

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It would not be a good idea for the acronym AIDS to gradually become a lower-case word like scuba, radar, and fax have done. There is one particularly good reason for this: "aid" and "aids" are already words meaning something completely different. There was no pre-existing word with its own meaning for "scuba", "radar", and "fax".

Additionally: Unless they have a good reason, BBC ought to respect and adopt the way organizations refer to themselves. NASA never calls itself Nasa, so the BBC should not, either. The United Nations always refers to its programme on HIV/AIDS as UNAIDS, not UNAids like the BBC sometimes does. And so forth. Similarly, let's let the medical community lead on how to refer to the disease AIDS. No medical journal is going to refer to it as Aids, so why should the BBC?

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Oh, and, yes, some sources say that acronyms are pronounced as one word, not a string of letters, but many sources and dictionaries do not have this restriction.

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Does it really matter? Some of our greatest writers couldn't write for toffee. If you understand it... tats all that matters.

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dt, If you want to get technical, initialism is a subset of acronym, i.e., all initialisms are acronyms, but not all acronyms are initialisms. Also, There is some controversy about the exact definition of initialism. Initialisms include only the first letter of each word. Some sources say pronunciation is irrelevant. BBC is an initialism. Some sources say NASA and laser are initialisms, others don't. Radar is not an initialism (RA = RAdar, one word). ALL of them are acronyms.

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There's a subtle difference between *acronyms* and *initialisms* and the BBC routinely treats them differently. Simply put, an acronym is pronounced as a *word* -- hence radar, aids, nasa -- but an initialism is sounded out a letter at a time -- so BBC, FBI, CIA TGIF.

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I too think it's silly of the BBC to abbreviate AIDS as Aids and NASA as Nasa. Maybe I should call them the Bbc instead of the BBC.

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Nasa at least sounds like a typo to me. NASA needs to be distinguished in journalism from other space agencies that are in the news, so I don't see it getting the radar treatment while that is the case. Abbreviating the name of a country sounds very odd, almost disrespectful. Perhaps a letter to the potentially twitty editors is in order.

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Porsche, I'm not sure if Sri Lanka is Sanskrit for "beautiful land". It means "beautiful Lanka". "Lanka" is not listed as meaning "land" or "island" in Apte, McDonnell, Cappeller's or Cologne. It means, variously, "the island of Ceylon or the chief town in it; wind from Ceylon; an unchaste woman; a branch; a kind of grain".

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In journalism, the great majority of publications follow the guidelines on in the AP Stylebook. However the bottom line in journalism is to be consistent. This I believe that the use of "Farc" and "Nasa" were editorial oversights.

How interesting is the comment @porsche makes about how words like L.A.S.E.R. and S.C.U.B.A. have evolved. The word NASA has been around nearly as long, but still it is referring to a specific organization, thus should not use the lowercase as in laser and scuba. With Farc, I have no doubt that the lowercase is an error.

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Jan, re: S Lanka, I am merely conjecturing as to a possible explanation, not a justification. That being said, is such usage really so objectionable? Let's pretend there's an island in the South Pacific called "Mister Paradise". If a headline referred to it as "Mr. Paradise" would you really think that was inappropriate because it's an island, not a person? Really? OK, maybe that's a bad example since "Mister" is less ambiguous. Let's say a town full of punsters named their town "Honorable Mention". If a newspaper article called it "Hon. Mention", would you really think the author, perhaps just as much a punster, didn't realize that it was a town, not a judge? Would such an act be so thoroughly indefensible?

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While I accept Porsche's explanation of language evolution in the first instance, I object to the second characterization. If Sri is in fact used as a title with surnames (and I know nothing of Sanskrit), then it appears to this reader that an automated replacement was made in the copy on the assumption ~ in this case false ~ that the reference was to a person. Professionals all need to take responsibility for, and correct, the automated errors created by word processing programs.

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Oh, and as for using S Lanka instead of Sri Lanka (which means "beautiful land"), in Sanskrit, "Sri" is also used as a title with surnames, like Mister, Master, Lord, etc. It's possible that abbreviating the Sri to S is analogous to using Mr. instead of Mister.

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It is a normal and natural progression that, over time, when an acronym becomes commonplace and simply recognized as a word in its own right, it ceases to be capitalized. Words like radar, laser, scuba, and fax, used to be written as RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging), LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation), SCUBA (Self-Contained Undewater Breathing Apparatus), and FAX (FAcsimile X-mission [transmission]). These words have become fully integrated into the lexicon, familiar to all, and are no longer capitalized. Most people can't even tell you what they stand for. Some don't even realize that they're acronyms. It's similar to a dead metaphor. This is an evolutionary process. If a particular writer or organization views the examples you mentioned as common, he/she/they may decide that they no longer need to be capitalized.

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fwiw, the OED has a citation for "Nasa" (not "NASA") from 1965.

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Thank you, dyske and Yoko. I suspect dyske is right, but I was hoping there was a standard of which I was unaware, as you suggest, Yoko.

Today's BBC News article about the discovery of HMS 'Victory' is laden with mispellings and errors, the two which come immediately to mind being "canon" for "cannon" and "ancestor" where it should have read "descendant."

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I haven't noticed any other instances of these and I am not a regular watcher of BBC so I am only working off of your examples. I'm sure I'll be more alert to the different treatments of acronyms in the future, though.

Here is my guess: Acronyms like FARC and NASA can be pronounced as words, whereas UK sounds funny if pronounced "uck," US has a different meaning from "us," and TV, BBC, and PM are not really pronounceable as words. The fact that words like FARC and NASA are more word-like could lead to the de-capitalization (but since it is a proper noun, it is also initialized).

I don't know anything about British writing standards, but perhaps there is something about allowing for such de-capitalization/initializations.

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Actually, I've been noticing the same thing. Never mind the errors in capitalization (which cannot be caught by spell checkers, and some may even undo the correct capitalization of acronyms), there are many blatant errors, like erroneously repeating the same words. I think it's a recent phenomenon. I suspect that it's a combination of two factors:

1. Because of the popularity of the Web as the primary mode of news consumption, the news editors are pressured to publish their articles as quickly as possible. Since the Web is so immediate and instantaneous, and because everyone expects it to be so, the quicker you publish the news, the more traffic you get to your site. So, they cut corners when it comes to quality control.

2. Because of the current economic climate, the news media are cutting staff in an effort to survive. I suspect many are doing away with the proof-reading step, and relying on the writers to do their best.

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