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Using Articles with Abbreviations

By Judy Vorfeld

Have you ever been con­fused about which arti­cle (a, an, the)
to use in front of an abbre­vi­a­tion? First, let’s define abbreviation:

An abbre­vi­a­tion is a short­ened form of a writ­ten word or phrase used in place of the whole word. Some author­i­ties con­sider acronyms and ini­tialisms to be abbreviations.

“Hmmm,” you say, “what is an acronym? I’ve heard the word, but it sounds more like a dis­ease than some­thing to do with grammar.”

An acronym is a word (like radar or snafu or NASDAQ) formed from the ini­tial let­ter or first few let­ters of a word or a series of words (exam­ple: radar comes from radio detect­ing and ranging).

ACRONYMS ARE PRONOUNCED AS COMPLETE WORDS.

Now, let’s look at ini­tialisms. An ini­tial­ism is an acronym formed from ini­tial let­ters (FEMA, NYSE, AFL-CIO, NAACP, IRSSEC).

INITIALISMS ARE PRONOUNCED LETTER BY LETTER.

Now we’re down to basics! If it is read as though all the words were spelled out (NAACP, TVA), the acronym is treated as a series of let­ters, and the choice depends on the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the FIRST LETTER (an HMO facil­ity; an M.B.A. degree; an R.S.V.P.; an LA-based com­pany, a TVA product).

If it’s gen­er­ally pro­nounced as though it were a word (NATO, HUD), the arti­cle is deter­mined by the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the WORD (a RICO hear­ing; a MADD chap­ter; a SWAT team; a FICA increase).

But when do you use “a” and when do you use “an” in front of an acronyms and initialisms?

Most style guides say that if it is READ as though all the words were spelled out (NAACP, HIV), the acronym is treated as a series of let­ters, and the choice depends on the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the FIRST LETTER (an HMO facil­ity; an M.B.A. degree; an R.S.V.P.; an LA-based company).

If it’s gen­er­ally PRONOUNCED as though it were a word (NATO, HUD, etc.), the arti­cle is deter­mined by the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the WORD (a RICO hear­ing; a MADD chap­ter; a SWAT team; a FICA increase).

Here’s an excel­lent site: The Acronym Finder In fact, you can sub­mit your own legit­i­mate acronym if you can’t find it in the list of acronyms. And the Acronym Finder accepted it. Take a look at this snazzy site!

And here are some other related sites for your reference:

The Opaui Guide to Lists of Acronyms, Abbreviations, and Initialisms on the World Wide Web
Abbreviations and Acronyms: University of Colorado
Articles and Acronyms: Professor Charles Darling

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