I was thinking about PIN numbers the other day and wondering…when is an acronym no longer an acronym?

“Acronym: an abbreviation formed using the first letters of the words in a phrase”

There are lots of acronyms that I use everyday that I don’t really think of as abbreviations. It seems to me that some acronyms eventually become words in their own right. Think about some of the TLAs you use regularly:










There are so many. For some of these, I have to really think about what the individual letters stand for.

So here’s what I was thinking about. It’s grammatically incorrect to talk about using an ‘ATM machine’, or your ‘PIN number’. You don’t use a Personal Identification Number number.

Saying ‘PIN number’ really annoys some grammar Nazis (not me, hence this blog). Is it now the case that a PIN has become a pin number? Has it ceased to be a reference to a TLA and become a word in its own right? I think it has.

The way that language changes over time is really interesting (to me anyway). As a self-confessed grammar Nazi, I’d like it if people always used the right word and correct accompanying punctuation. But at some point the overwhelming mass of people wrongly using a particular word or phrase actually changes the accepted norm for that word.

Take for instance ‘alright’. When I was a girl, ‘alright’ was more correctly written ‘all right’. During my childhood I was aware that either spelling had become acceptable. And nowadays it would look strange to write ‘all right’ when you meant ‘alright’. The same is happening with ‘alot’. Many people think (wrongly) that this is one word. It’s not. Never has been. But following the tendency for little words to snuggle up to the words next door to it, it is slowly becoming more normal to write ‘alot’.

When I see this happening, I have to accept it. The most wonderful thing about the English language is that it is flexible and adaptable. And so must we be.

And the same is true of the humble TLA. They become words. It’s just the nature of things. So if you’re the type of person who cringes every time you hear someone refer to their PIN number, do the mental lower-casing. It will make you a happier person.