Periods and type size

A while back, I posted on Language Log about punctuation conventions in alphabetic abbreviations, noting that the New York Times tries to be scrupulous in the way it punctuates acronyms (which are pronounced as whole words: CAT scan) and initialisms (which are pronounced as sequences of letter names: MRI). NYT style insists on periods after each letter of an initialism (hence, M.R.I.), though with some exceptions (as in CBS), and on no periods at all in acronyms.

It seems that the New Yorker distinguishes these two types of abbreviations in the same way. But with an extra twist. From Hendrik Hertzberg’s “Talk of the Town” piece (“Stonewall Plus Forty”) in the July 6 & 13 issue (p. 24):

doma and D.A.D.T.–the Defense of Marriage Act and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”–remain as fully in force as they were on Election Day.

Here the initialism is in ordinary caps, but the acronym is in small caps. The distinction is made, as far as I can see, throughout the magazine. A nice further touch is that initialisms that are printed without periods are also in ordinary caps rather than small caps: MTV, CNBC.

5 Responses to “Periods and type size”

  1. Robbo Says:

    What I still can’t figure out is why style guides insist on representing the military rank of private first class as “Pfc.” Shouldn’t it be PFC, or P.F.C.? It’s pronounced as pee-eff-see. Any ideas?

  2. The Ridger Says:

    That’s the military usage. Ssgt for Staff Sergeant is another example.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    ps – meant to add: that’s the current usage. I’m not sure exactly when it changed… 1990s I think.

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To The Ridger: what I find is SSgt and SSgt. for Staff Sergeant (and MSgt and MSgt. for Master Sergeant). In any case, these are abbreviations, but not alphabetic abbreviations. SSgt is read as “Staff Sergeant”, not as “ess-ess-gee-tee” or “ess-sergeant” or whatever.

    For Private First Class I find both PFC (all caps, no periods) and Pfc. (initial cap, final period). The first is clearly an initialism, pronounced “pee-eff-see”. The second has the appearance of an ordinary abbreviation (like Sgt. or Dr. or Gen.), which would ordinarily be read as the full unabbreviated expression (“Private First Class”). Perhaps the first treatment has been carried over to the second variant.

  5. Robbo Says:

    Arnold, that’s the best explanation I’ve seen for something that’s been bothering me for over 20 years in uniform. I don’t like it (I still think PFC is better) but it makes sense. Thanks!
    Now if you really want to be bored, let’s discuss the different abbreviations for the same ranks in the Army and Marines (U.S.) ….

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