Make Your Editor Cry: Specific Letters as Words or Word Parts
You may wonder whether words like T-shirt and A-frame which amount to a letter combined with a word have an official type or designation. Maybe you don’t and this never made you curious. Personally, I wondered. Are these types of words rightly called initialisms, acronyms, abbreviations, trademarked or branded names, or what?
Well, to the best of my research, the answer is, they are “or what.”
People often incorrectly use the term acronym to describe anything made up of initial letters. But something like DNA (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) is rightly called an initialism. Because each letter is distinctly pronounced, this particular shorthand is not pronounced as “a word,” nor are words like GDP (Gross Domestic Product) FM (Frequency Modulation), VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) or TNT, IRS, or FBI for that matter.
The term acronym rightly describes anything made up of initial letters, but most dictionaries define them as “a word.” So, NATO (short for North Atlantic Trade Organization) is an acronym because it’s pronounced as “a word” just like scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), radar (radio detection and ranging), laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), and AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave). Even though each of these words is derived from only the initial letters of the terms they represent, they are not initialisms because they are pronounced as words in and of themselves and they are not abbreviations because they are not “shortened forms” of entire words. So words like TV or ICU or ER would not qualify as acronyms using this definition.
An abbreviation is a shorted form of any word such as Mr. for Mister or abbr. for abbreviations (or abbreviated). An abbreviation usually consists of the first few letters of any longer word such as Capt. for Captain or cent. for century. This is not always the case because an abbreviation can also consist of additional selected letters in the word other than the initial letters such as in Assn. for Association or Dept. for Department.
Words like T-shirt and A-frame which amount to a letter combined with a word don’t completely fall into any of these three categories. They are just specific letters (or sometimes numbers) used as words or word parts. If you figure out what the “technical” term for them is, please enlighten me.
So, You may wonder if it’s properly capitalized like t-shirt or T-shirt, or a-frame or A-frame because that capitalization might look kind of funny in the middle of a sentence.
Here’s the skinny.
The capitalized T-shirt is correct. It is called a T-shirt because the shape of the actual garment resembles that of a capital letter T, in the same way that an A-frame’s shape resembles a capital letter A. This is why, with a T-shirt for example, Webster says it can also “less commonly” be spelled as “tee shirt” but makes no allowance whatsoever for “t-shirt” with a lowercase t.
Think of I-beam instead of lowercase i-beam since a cross-section of the beam of steel it is named for resembles a capital serif font letter I from the side. Think of a Q-tips swab with the stick inserted into a roundish shaped bit of cotton instead of q-tips swab which would have all the cotton on one side of the swab more like a toothbrush or a flag. But another reason to capitalize Q-tips specifically is because it is a trademarked term just like Kleenex or Xerox.
If the shape of the letter is the key, it’s always best to use the proper case of the letter. This is unlike words like T-Bill, or e-mail, or iPhone in which case the shape of the letter is not the determining factor. In these cases, there are also simple rules. If the letter is treated as a proper noun, like a Treasury Bill, capitalize it. If the letter represents a common noun, like electronic mail, capitalization follows the rules for common nouns. If the letter is capitalized or lowercase according to the company’s branding like an iPhone, follow the company’s branding.
Musical notations are treated as proper nouns. Therefore, notations such as C-minor or B-major, are always capitalized regardless of where they fall in a sentence. Likewise capitalize the notes as they pertain to parts of musical instruments such as the A-string or the B flat key (as in on a keyboard, not as in “the key of B-flat”), although the parts of the musical instrument themselves (e.g., string, key) are not capitalized because they are not proper nouns.
Since this is often confusing, I searched dictionaries and the “interwebs” for all the examples and forms I could find. An alphabetical list of some words dependent upon letters written in their proper case follows:
1-A (aka 1A)—WWII through end of Draft era term designating someone as "Acceptable" for military service based on medical, dental, and other examinations.
1-AM (aka 1AM)-WWII through end of Draft era term designating someone as "Acceptable Medical" specialist available for military service.
1-AO (aka 1AO)-WWII through end of Draft era term designating someone as "Acceptable" Conscientious "Objector" opposed to training and military service requiring a combatant role or the use of deadly arms but able to fulfill service obligation in a noncombatant role within the military.
1-O (aka 1O)-WWII through end of Draft era term designating someone as a Conscientious "Objector" available for alternate community service outside the military.
2-by-4 (less commonly 2x4)--actually a misnomer, this is a beam or plank of wood that today actually measures 1.5 inches tall by 3.5 inches wide and is usually cut to varying even lengths with standard lengths being 8, 10, or 12 even feet. Once upon a time the raw cut untreated planks fresh from the sawmill cants actually measured 2 inches by 4 inches but modern treatments of drying, pressing, planing, etc., shave off a quarter inch here and there.
4-F (aka 4F)—WWII through end of Draft era term designating someone who "failed" to meet the minimum acceptable standards of the medical, dental, or other examination resulting in being rejected from entrance to military service due to being unfit for duty. Though often in error, it should not be reversed and written as "F-4" and probably only ever was due to confusion with the military fighter/bomber McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom that first appeared in the late 1950s.
4x4 (less commonly four-by-four)--a four-wheel automotive vehicle such as a pickup truck or Jeep equipped with four-wheel drive.
A-bomb—An atomic bomb.
A-key—or A sharp key, or A flat key, or any of the notes from "doe to ti" listed as A to G when speaking of a particular key on a keyboard.
A-levels—A set of exams given at about age 18 (British).
A-list—The group of people who are the most desirable for something.
A-major—or A-minor, or any of the notes from "doe to ti" listed as A to G followed by that notation. Likewise in the flat or sharp of the octaves.
A-string—traditionally, the third string on a violin. For almost 500 years, violins have generally had four strings tuned G, D, A, and E. Guitars and harps obviously can have many strings from doe to ti and in more than one octave listed as A to G. So this may also be written as referring to the G-string, D-string, E-string, etc.
A-team—properly, Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha (SFODA). Each SFODA specializes in an infiltration skill or a particular mission-set (e.g., Military Freefall, combat diving, mountain warfare, maritime operations, etc.). Unlike the popular 1980s TV show, an actual SFODA consists of 12 highly trained soldiers.
B-school—(Graduate-level) Business School
B-word—a common euphemism for a very ugly derogatory sexist slur.
C-4 (less commonly C-four)—stands for Composition IV which is a stable high explosive composed of various chemicals that make it moldable and plastic. First found common use in the Vietnam War and is the primary explosive in the US Military Claymore Mine.
C-clamp—a C-shaped general-purpose clamp.
C-note—Century note, aka a $100 bill (common between 1920s and 1960s, now a bit dated).
C-rations (aka C-rats)—WWII through Vietnam War-era military term for "canned" rations.
D-day—military term for "the day of the invasion". "D" is a variable that allows planners to talk about the schedule of operations without actually knowing which day invasion day will fall on. This is important because the actual invasion day is always secret and usually isn't determined until the last minute. So, for example, two days before the invasion is "D-day minus 2" or just "D-minus 2"; three days later is "D-day plus 3". The "D" just stands for "day". (The hour of the invasion is "H-hour", with "H" standing for "hour" [see below].) "D-Day" has come to be popularly known as the day that the Allied troops invaded Normandy, probably the most pivotal battle of WWII.
D-ring--an item of hardware, usually a tie-down metal ring shaped like the letter "D" used primarily as a lashing point.
e-mail—electronic mail is usually no longer capitalized unless it begins a sentence since words like this and "internet" are no longer treated as proper nouns but common nouns.
figure-8 (aka figure-eight aka Flemish bend knot)—knot used for joining two ropes or cables of roughly similar size. A loose figure-8 knot is tied in the end of one length. The second length is then threaded backwards parallel to the first length.
F-word—a common euphemism for a very ugly swear word.
G-string—(1) the first and thickest string on a violin. For almost 500 years, violins have generally had four strings tuned G, D, A, and E.
G-string—(2) Probably named "G" after the thickest string on a violin, this is a very small garment that perhaps does--perhaps does not--cover the genitals. It may also have derived the "G" from "genitals," though etymology is not clear.
H-bomb—a hydrogen bomb
H-harness—usually attaches to a thick belt but can attach to a back pack or ruck sack, used in military applications to attach gear to a soldier.
H-hour—military planning term meaning the hour set for launching a specific tactical operation.
I-beam—metal beam with a cross-section in the shape of a capital (serif) "I".
I-9 (aka Form I-9)—Employment Eligibility Verification. All US employers must properly complete Form I-9 for each individual they hire for employment in the United States.
J-channel—used in construction around doors, windows, and at the roof line to hide ends of siding panels and create a finished look.
J-school—Journalism school. Not very commonly used except by journalists.
K-9—Police or Military service dog (Detects drugs, bombs, corpses, etc., by scent).
K-12—schools teaching from ages about five ("Kindergarten") to about age 18 ("grade 12").
K-car—family of cars sold by Plymouth in the mid 1980s.
K-rations (aka K-rats)—introduced by the US Army during World War II, a K-ration provides three separately boxed meal units: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. Originally intended as an individually packaged daily ration for issue to airborne troops, tank crews, motorcycle couriers, Long Range Recon Patrols (LRRP), and other mobile forces for short durations.
L-bracket—metal bracket with a cross-section that looks like a capital "L".
M-day--a (usually secret) day on which a military "mobilization" is to begin. This term is used to plan military operations using the day as a variable in the military plan.
N-channel—A particular type of transistor.
N-word—a euphemism for a very ugly derogatory racial slur.
O-levels—A set of exams given at about age 18 (British).
O-Ring—gaskets that have a cross-section that looks like an "O".
P-channel—A particular type of transistor.
Q-tips—trademark for a particular brand of cotton swab in the United States and Canada. The Q-tips brand is owned by Unilever. Term is often used generically to refer to any cotton swab on a stick; most commonly used to clean ears. In fiction writing, it may be best to substitute "cotton swab" for this trademarked term.
S-curve—a curve resembling the letter "S"
T-ball—form of baseball where, instead of a pitcher, balls are set on a tee for the batter to hit.
T-bar (aka T-bar lift)-a ski lift having a series of T-shaped bars each of which pulls two skiers usually uphill.
T-Bill— A Treasury Bill (T-Bill) is a short-term US government debt obligation backed by the Treasury Department with a maturity of one year or less. Treasury bills are usually sold in denominations of $1,000.
T-junction (aka T-intersection)—a type of intersection with three arms that resembles a capital letter "T".
T-minus— used to indicate that a specified amount of "Time" remains before an event is scheduled or expected to take place.
T-shirt—Collarless short-sleeved knit shirt having roughly the shape of a capital "T".
T-square—Drafting tool that has roughly the shape of a capital "T".
U-boat—Underseas boat. Basically, a submarine. By definition, submarine vessels are not ships, but boats. U-boat is a WWII military term borrowed from Nazi Kriegsmarine (German Navy).
U-bolt—bolt in the shape of the letter U with screw threads on both ends. U-bolts have primarily been used to support pipework.
U-channel—metal edge trim used to frame thin panel and mesh products including metal fabrics, glass panels, wire mesh, and other flat panel items.
U-joint—Universal joint commonly found in automobile transmissions.
U-turn—a turn where the turner ends up heading 180 degrees from where the turner was heading at the beginning of the turn resembling a capital letter "U" when properly executed.
V-day—Victory day. WWII military term, usually used with another letter to designate in which theater of war victory was achieved: VE-day for Europe and VJ-day for Japan.
V-neck—a type of shirt with a neckline in the shape of a capital "V". Usually refers to sweaters or T-shirts.
W-2—US tax form given by employers to their employees and the government, detailing how much income and taxes the employee received/paid in the previous year.
W-4—US taxpayers will complete Form W-4 so your employer can withhold the correct federal income tax from your pay.
W-9—US tax form used to request Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) and Certification
x-axis—usually lowercase, this is one of the three axes in a three-dimensional rectangular coordinate system. The x-axis is the axis in a plane Cartesian coordinate system parallel to which abscissas are measured.
X-chromosome—One of two variants of the sex-linked chromosomes, shaped like a capital letter "X".
X-ray—A piece of the electromagnetic spectrum that can penetrate many solid objects; also, equipment that uses that technology or images made with such equipment.
X-wing (aka X-wing fighter)—if I have to define this one, it means we can't be friends.
y-axis—usually lowercase, this is one of the three axes in a three-dimensional rectangular coordinate system. The y-axis is the axis of a plane Cartesian coordinate system parallel to which ordinates are measured.
Y-chromosome—One of two variants of the sex-linked chromosomes, shaped like a capital "Y".
Y-junction (aka a 3-way junction aka a Wye in railroad terms)—a type of road intersection with three arms that resembles a capital letter "Y" or a rail junction that takes the form of a triangle of railway lines (aka "Wye").
z-axis—usually lowercase, this is one of the three axes in a three-dimensional rectangular coordinate system.
Z-buffering—a computer graphics algorithm used to figure out which objects are visible and which are hidden behind other objects
Gregg Bridgeman is the Editor-in-Chief at Olivia Kimbrell Press. He is husband to best-selling Christian author Hallee Bridgeman and parent to three. He continues to proudly serve in the US Armed Forces and has done so in either an active or reserve capacity for more than twenty years as an airborne and air assault qualified paratrooper, earning a Bronze Star for his service. Most importantly, he was ordained in October of 2001 after surrendering his life to Christ decades earlier.