UKOLN AHDS Using The ACRONYM And ABBR HTML Elements On The QA Focus Web Site


After hearing about the automated tool which harvested <abbr> and <acronym> elements [1] it was decided to begin the deployment of these elements on the QA Focus Web site. This case study reviews the issues which needed to be addressed.

Problem Being Addressed

The <abbr> and <acronym> elements were developed primarily to enhance the accessibility of Web pages, by allowing the definitions of abbreviations and acronyms to be displayed. The acronyms and abbreviations are normally identified by underlining of the text. Moving the mouse over the underlined words in a modern browser which provides the necessary support (e.g. Opera and Mozilla) results in the expansion of the acronyms and abbreviations being displayed in a pop-up window. An example is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Rendering Of The <ACRONYM> Element
Figure 1: Rendering Of The <ACRONYM> Element

As Tom Heath's case study describes, these elements can be repurposed in order to produce an automated glossary.

Since the QA Focus Web site contains many abbreviations and acronyms (e.g. Web terms such as HTML and SMIL, programme, project and service terms such as JISC, FAIR and X4L and expressions from the educational sector such as HE and HEFCE it was recognised that there is a need for such terms to be explained. This is normally done within the text itself e.g. "The JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) ...". However the QA Focus team quickly recognised the potential of the <abbr> and <acronym> harvesting tool to produce an automated glossary of tools.

This case study describes the issues which QA Focus needs to address in order to exploit the harvesting tool effectively.

The Approach Taken

The QA Focus Web site makes use of PHP which assemble XHTML fragments. The HTML-Kit authoring tool is used to manage the XHTML fragments. This approach was used to create <abbr> and <acronym> elements as needed e.g.:

<abbr title="Hypertext Markup Language">HTML</abbr>

In order to ensure that the elements had been used correctly we ensure that pages are validated after they have been updated.

Problems Experienced

The harvesting tool processed pages on the UKOLN Web site, which included the QA Focus area. When we examined the automated glossary which had been produced [2] we noticed there were a number of errors in the definitions of abbreviations and acronyms, which were due to errors in the definition of terms on the QA Focus Web site.

Although these errors were quickly fixed, we recognised that such errors were likely to reoccur. We recognised the need to implement systematic quality assurance procedures, especially since such errors would not only give incorrect information to end users viewing the definitions, but also any automated glossary created for the Web site would be incorrect.

In addition, when we read the definitions of the <abbr> and <acronym> elements we realised that there were differences between W3C's definitions of these terms and Oxford English Dictionaries of these terms in English usage.

We also recognised that, even allowing for cultural variations, some terms could be classed either as acronyms or abbreviations. For example the term "FAQ" can either be classed as an acronym and pronounced "fack" or an abbreviation with the individual letters pronounced - "eff-ay-queue".

A summary of these ambiguities is available [3].

We recognised that the <abbr> and <acronym> elements could be used in a number of ways. A formally dictionary definition could be used or an informal explanation could be provided, possible giving some cultural context. For example the name of the FAILTE project could be formally defined as standing for " Facilitating Access to Information on Learning Technology for Engineers". Alternatively we could say that "Facilitating Access to Information on Learning Technology for Engineers. FAILTE is the gaelic word for 'Welcome', and is pronounced something like 'fawl-sha'.".

We realised that there may be common variations for certain abbreviations (e.g. US and USA). Indeed with such terms (and others such as UK) there is an argument that the meaning of such terms is widely known and so there is no need to explicitly define them. However this then raises the issue of agreeing on terms which do not need to be defined.

We also realised that there will be cases in which words which would appear to be acronyms or abbreviations may not in fact be. For example UKOLN, which at one stage stood for 'UK Office For Library And Information Networking' is now no longer an acronym. An increasing number of organisations appear to be no longer expanding their acronym or abbreviation, often as a result of it no longer giving a true reflection of their activities.

Finally we realised that we need to define how the <abbr> and <acronym> elements should be used if the terms are used in a plural form or contain punctuation e.g.: in the sentence:

JISC's view of ...

do we use:
<acronym title="Joint Information Systems Committee">JISC's<acronym> or
<acronym title="Joint Information Systems Committee">JISC<acronym>'s ...


Our Solutions


We recognised that we need to develop a policy on our definition or acronyms or abbreviations and QA procedures for ensuring the quality.

The policies we have developed are:

We will seek to make use of the <acronym> and <abbr> elements on the QA Focus Web site in order to provide an explanation of acronyms and abbreviations used on the Web site and to have the potential for this structured information to be re-purposed for the creation of an automated glossary for the Web site.

We will use the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the terms acronyms and abbreviations. We treat acronyms as abbreviations which are normally pronounced in standard UK English usage as words (e.g. radar, JISC, etc.); with abbreviations the individual letters are normally pronounced (e.g. HTML, HE, etc.). In cases of uncertainty the project manager will adjudicate.

The elements will be used with the formal name of the acronyms and abbreviations and will not include any punctuation.

We will give a formal definition. Any additional information should be defined in the normal text.

We will not define acronyms or abbreviations if they are no longer to be treated as acronyms or abbreviations.


Implementing QA procedures is more difficult. Ideally acronyms and abbreviations would be defined once within a Content Management System and implemented from that single source. However as we do not have a CMS, this is not possible.

One aspect of QA is staff development. We will ensure that authors of resources on the QA Web site are aware of how these elements may be repurposed, and thus the importance of using correct definitions.

Future Developments

We will liaise with Tom Heath, developer of the acronym and abbreviation harvester to explore the possibilities of this tool being used to display usage of <abbr> and <acronym> elements on the QA Focus Web site.

Although the issues explored in this case study are not necessarily significant ones the general issue being addressed is quality of metadata. This is an important issue, as in many cases, metadata will provide the 'glue' for interoperable services. We hope that the approaches described in this case study will inform the work in developing QA procedures for other types of metadata.


  1. Exploiting ACRONYM And ABBR HTML Elements, QA Focus. UKOLN,
  2. Abbreviations and Acronyms related to Materials, Higher Education and Computing, UK Centre for Materials Education,
  3. Abbreviations, Acronyms, Initialisms,,