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.

7 thoughts on “TLA

    • Bebe October 1, 2010 / 9:30 PM

      LMAO 😀

  1. rebalehan October 2, 2010 / 12:54 AM


    Et cetera (in English contexts pronounced /ɛt.ˈsɛtərə/) is a Latin expression that means “and other things”, or “and so forth”. It is taken directly from the Latin expression which literally means “and the rest (of such things)” and is a loan-translation of the Greek “καὶ τὰ ἕτερα” (kai ta hetera; “and the other things”). Et means “and”; cētera means “the rest”.

    no TLA there

    • Bebe October 2, 2010 / 5:15 PM

      Haha true! I did think that when I typed it, but specifically added it to the end so it could just be the “…and so on” at the end of the list 😀

  2. Robert Latchford October 4, 2010 / 10:37 AM

    The English language has morphed a huge amount. PIN has pretty much become the default term for Personal Information Number as you mentioned. The use of texting and technology like Skype has increased our propensity to use abbreviated ‘slang’. TLA’a like FYI , FTW and longer one’s like TTFN and LMAO are used regularly in calls I have using both the phone and online speak.

    The purists hate it but hey English is a living language which changes each ane every year.

  3. Mike Taylor January 3, 2011 / 11:50 PM

    umm, I think that Acronym is a word that is easily confuzzled…

    Acronym; “a word formed from the initial letters of other words (e.g., radar, laser).”

    Soooo… Technically, PIN is an acronym, but ATM is not….
    WOF is almost an acronym, DVD is not…

    ABA – Another Bloody Acronym


    Super pedantic I know!

    P.S. I want to be Vice President in Charge of Acronyms when I grow up!

    • Bebe January 4, 2011 / 8:34 AM

      But you see, this is my point. I struggle with being overly pedantic. The thing with English is that it is flexible. So is an acronym whatever people want an acronym to be, or is it a dictionary definition? Somewhere in between? You gotta have rules, but the rules can’t rule.

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