Thursday, December 11, 2008

"A" and "An" with Acronyms and Initialisms

There was an article a week or so ago in the Detroit Free Press that mentioned something about "an NWA employee." As I was reading the article, I read "NWA" to myself as "Northwest Airlines" (out of habit), thus the preceding "an" sounded incorrect. Remember the rule - always use "a" before a word that begins with a consonant sound and "an" before a word that begins with a vowel sound. This got me to thinking about the use of the determiners "a" and "an" with acronyms and initialisms.

Acronyms are pretty much straightforward compared to initialisms. An acronym is generally formed from the initial letters or syllables of a name and it is always verbalized as a word - Think of NATO, it is never read or spoken of as "N"-"A"-"T"-"O" so there is not a question that it would be "a NATO meeting," and not "an 'N'-'A'-'T'-'O' meeting."

On the other hand, initialisms, though also formed from the initial letters of a name and written as such, are not always verbalized as individual letters (contrary to the definition). This is why when reading "an NWA employee" as "an Northwest Airlines employee," the use of "an" as a determiner sounded and would be considered incorrect.

I could not find a rule regarding this problem in the Associated Press Stylebook. I would guess that because initialisms are made of initials and the initials are not used to form a separate word as they are in acronyms, determiner usage should be based on the verbalization of the first letter of the initialism.

In sum, I believe the Free Press was correct and it was my fault for reading "NWA" as "Northwest Airlines." The only problem would be if a person encountered an unknown abbreviation that could be read as an acronym or an initialism.


Anonymous said...

Part of the problem may be that the letter N is pronounced "en," thus starting with a vowel sound.

Virtual Linguist said...

Ask Oxford (part of OUP) has the rule
I quote:"An abbreviation such as MP, which is pronounced em pea, begins with a spoken vowel, and so it is 'an MP'"

Laura Payne said...

I apologize for the confusing way that I wrote about initialisms. Of course when an initialism like NWA is read aloud as "N"-"W"-"A" it would be preceeded by "an" because the letter "N" does start with a vowel sound. What I was refering to is when a person encounters a known initialism in print and, instead of verbalizing the initials, verbalizes the unabbreviated version of the initialism. I believe this happens with with NWA because the unabbreviated version (Northwest Airlines) actually has fewer syllables and rolls off the tongue more easily than the initialism.

Also, regarding the difficulty of choosing between "a" and "an" with an unknown abbreviation - think of NATO again. If NATO was not a known acronym, one might interpret it as an initialism and want to use "an" because the letter "N" starts with a vowel sound.

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