Linguists and grammarians have all kinds of ways to classify things to help us ordinary people make sense of language. Here is a quick guide to some –nyms and –isms to help you keep track of some common language pitfalls.
Acronyms versus initialisms
Did you know that there’s a difference? An acronym is an abbreviation formed using the first letter of each word in the phrase, and is pronounced as a word. Think NASA and NATO. An initialism is an abbreviation that can’t be pronounced as word, and needs to be spelled out in speech, like RCMP or DVD.
Does it really matter? Not always, but knowing some finer points of style can help make sure that your writing is clear. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “ … initialisms tend to appear in all capital letters, even when they are not derived from proper nouns (HIV, VP, LCD). With frequent use, however, acronyms—especially those of five or more letters—will sometimes become lowercase (scuba).”
Chicago also recommends that less common ones should be spelled out at first occurrence. Knowing the rules can help you get it right the first time, and avoid confusion for your readers.
There are two kinds of homonyms. Homographs are words that are spelled alike, but have different meanings. Homophones are words that sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Knowing these three words might only be useful for trivia night, but knowing how to avoid common mistakes of each kind will improve your writing.
minute: 60 seconds, or very small
wind: air that moves in a more or less rapid natural motion, or go in a circular, spiral, curved, or crooked course
wound: an injury, or the past tense of the verb “to wind”
ascent: the act of ascending or rising
assent: consent, express agreement
reign: hold royal office
rein: long narrow strap with each end attached to the bit, used to guide or a check a horse
stationary: remaining in one place
stationery: writing paper
Of course, the most common homophone is their, there and they’re. It’s such a big deal that it even has its own website.
Redundonyms and oronyms
According to my beloved Canadian Oxford Dictionary, these aren’t actually words, but they do represent some writing pitfalls that are worth mentioning.
Redundonyms happen when we use an acronym (or initialism) followed by a word that is part of the acronym itself: ATM machine, PIN number, or HIV virus. If you think people won’t understand your meaning unless the last word is spelled out, it’s better to spell out the whole thing.
Oronyms are like homophones, but are strings of words that sound similar when said aloud, yet mean very different things: “I scream” and “ice cream”; “sixty sick students” and “sixty-six students”.
Reading your work out loud can you help spot funny business that might need to be corrected so that your readers don’t get confused. Meanwhile, if you really want to get ready for trivia night, find more examples of homonyms in this fabulous Twitter thread by Merriam-Webster Dictionary.