A Primer on the AP Style Rule for Acronyms

If you write factual content or realistic fiction, it’s almost impossible to avoid working with acronyms. Between “alphabet soup” government agencies and absurdly named pieces of legislation, I often find my writing overrun with these abbreviations. Given the ubiquity of acronyms, knowing the relevant grammar and style rules is crucial. Since the Associated Press style is one of the more widely used writing standards, learning the AP style rule for acronyms and abbreviations is an essential starting point for most freelance writers.

What Are Acronyms?

So what are acronyms? As a quick reminder, acronyms are a specific type of abbreviation. An acronym is formed from the first letters of the words that make up a phrase. Acronyms are pronounced as words, rather than as series of letters.

Examples of Acronyms vs Abbreviations:


Abbreviations: AAA, FBI, NYC

Using Acronyms in AP Style

If you’re writing in AP style, you are never explicitly required to use acronyms. If you choose to utilize one, you should usually begin by writing out the full phrase that makes up the acronym.

Someone clearly put a little thought into naming the Tackling Excessive Standardized Testing Act.

Although you may have been taught to follow this initial reference with the acronym offset in dashes or parentheses, this isn’t the convention in AP style. Simply use the acronym on the second reference.

AP Style Acronym Examples:

Someone clearly put a little thought into naming the Tackling Excessive Standardized Testing (TEST) Act.  

While we’re talking about legislative acronyms, the Eliminating Government-funded Oil-painting Act also deserves a mention. Due to the careful use of hyphens and capitalization, I get to cite this as the EGO Act.  

Sometimes, a so-called acronym will omit letters from the words that comprise it or include extra, unrelated letters. If the connection between the original phrase and the acronym isn’t clear, don’t use the acronym. This is a simple acronym rule.

The Sugar Sweetened Beverages Act of 2015 also has a supposedly clever name. Unfortunately, the SWEET Act doesn’t derive its acronym from the first letters of each word. (This isn’t a real acronym, so this citation isn’t advisable.)  

Some acronyms are well-known enough to be used on first reference, but it’s important to consider your audience to determine whether this is the case. It’s also best to use restraint when deciding whether to place acronyms in headlines. With AP style acronyms, using well-known acronyms in this context is acceptable. However, incorporating an obscure acronym to make a headline more concise is frowned upon.

Capitalizing and Punctuating AP Acronyms

Typically, acronyms consist of all capital letters and do not include periods. If an acronym is more than five letters long, the general AP style acronym rules state that you should capitalize only the first letter. However, some longer acronyms, such as UNESCO, appear fully capitalized by convention. It never hurts to check the AP Stylebook or a direct source, such as the organization or legislation in question, to determine which convention to use.

In 2015, the onslaught of legislative acronyms inspired the Accountability and Congressional Responsibility On Naming Your Motions Act. If it hadn’t been an April Fools joke, the ACRONYM Act could have made writing about legislation much duller for easily amused people like me.

Eliminating Errors With Acronyms

Although the AP style rule for acronyms is fairly straightforward next to other AP style conventions, using AP acronyms correctly in professional writing can still take some practice. If you have any advice for working with acronyms or any lingering questions, please let us know in the comments section!





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