More on using “a” or “an” before acronyms/initialisms

That’s a previous post about this subject. However, because this topic is evergreen, I can write more!

This question comes up regularly on social media. I’m not sure if that’s because it is actually that confusing or because people simply don’t read closely.

If the term in question begins with a consonant sound (not necessarily a consonant! It’s about the sound, not the letter!), use “a,” like this:

A friend who applied to be a CIA operative used me as a reference.

We use “a” because we say “see eye ay,” which begins with an S sound.

Look again at “an S sound.” Remember, it’s about the sound of the beginning letter, not the letter itself. Because “ess” (what we call that letter) begins with a vowel sound, we use “an” with “S.”

With the initialism “NYC,” I see both articles used even in text produced within the city itself. The article guides me, as a reader, toward the expected pronunciation. If I see “a NYC bistro,” I know I’m meant to read that as “New York City.” If I see “an NYC bistro,” I’m meant to read that as “an En-Why-See bistro.” People who live in NYC have strong opinions about which is correct. (Which way did you read it that time? There’s nothing to guide you; there’s also no right or wrong answer. At least not to me, there isn’t.)

Recently this question arose about the term “FAQ.” Within the IT community, it’s universally accepted as a word, pronounced like “fack”: Read the FAQ. Outside that group, opinions and practices vary. Some people say “eff-ay-cue,” which would necessitate using “an” if one required an indefinite article. Others say “fack,” which of course would take “a.” I wager nearly everyone who has ever ordered anything online has encountered “FAQ” at some point, usually in wording like “Questions? Read our FAQ before contacting us.” It’s not so much unfamiliarity with the term that’s the issue. It’s whether you’re inside the IT community, where it’s just a word and pronounced like one, or outside, where you don’t hear or use it regularly. (Disclosure: My spouse has decades of experience in IT. I learned early on that it’s “a FAQ.”)

Remember: It’s the sound of the letter, not the letter that makes the sound, that matters in choosing the indefinite article that will guide readers to the intended pronunciation.

Listen to the words

I’ve blogged before about when to use “a” and “an” with initialisms. Here’s a real-world example, taken from Huddleston and Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar:

It is typical for the subject of a clause to be an NP.

“But Karen, ‘n’ would take ‘a’ because it’s a consonant!”

Nope. “N” takes “an” when it’s pronounced as itself, the letter “en.” It begins with a vowel sound, which takes “an.”

Clearly, the authors intend for us to say “en pee” rather than “noun phrase.” The indefinite article “an” is the cue.

Edit a MS? An MS? Say it out loud.

How do you pronounce “MS” when it’s the abbreviation for “manuscript?”

According to both the online Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries, it’s pronounced “em ess,” making it an initialism rather than an abbreviation. (It’s also shown in capital letters, MS, in keeping with it being an initialism.)

My own experience styles it lower case, ms, and I’ve never heard anyone say “em ess.” However, that’s exactly what both sources give as the US pronunciation. (Perhaps my colleagues and I were all quite sheltered. I don’t know.)

To me it makes sense to use the article that matches the reading you intend as a result. If you expect the readers to say “em ess” in their heads, use “an MS.” For the result “manuscript,” use “a MS.” Give the readers a clue about your intention, and they’ll follow.


And whatever you do, do not style it “Ms.” That’s an entirely different issue (and it’s pronounced “mizz”).


ETA: After a year and a half, and no small amount of discussion among my peers and colleagues, I’ve come to the conclusion that no one who understands the abbreviation would ever say “em ess” (despite what the dictionaries tell us); they’d say “manuscript.” However, I’m not going to tell you never to use “an MS.” If that’s what you want to do, it’s certainly correct from a mechanical standpoint; someone reading that will either say “an em ess” (because they don’t know any better, and you’ve led them to that conclusion with the “an”)  or think “WTF are they doing? It’s a manuscript.”

Have at it, folks. And thank you to @Mededitor and @LisaPoisso for the thoughtful discussion today, which poked me enough that I came here and wrote this.


And Now, a Few Brief Words, or: Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Initialisms

FBI. CIA. NASA. IBM. S.H.I.E.L.D. i.e., e.g., and N.B.

The English language contains dozens of abbreviated forms, which tend to fall into one of three broad categories as presented in the title of this entry. We have abbreviations like i.e., e.g., and N.B. (which stand, respectively, for id est, exempli gratia, and nota bene — “in other words,” “for example,” and “note well,” or “HEY! Pay attention to this!”); we have acronyms, where each letter stands for a separate word and the letters together are pronounced as if they were in fact a word (NASA and S.H.I.E.L.D.); and we have initialisms, which look identical to acronyms but are pronounced like their individual components (eff bee eye, see eye ay [as opposed to aye, which rhymes with eye], eye bee em).

For the most part, abbreviations will include periods (i.e., e.g., N.B.). I say “for the most part” because over time, many of the most common two-letter abbreviations, like AD, BC, RN, MD, and so on, have lost their periods in favor of a simple closed styling. There is no one right answer to “do I use periods or not” in cases like these. Check your style book, if you’re being paid to adhere to one. Otherwise, pick a style and be consistent within your writing. Bouncing back and forth is crazy-making for readers and editors. You don’t want crazy readers and editors. Trust me. You don’t. Also for the most part, we pronounce the letters (eye ee, ee gee, en bee) of abbreviations rather than the entire word or phrase. Notable exceptions to this, I think, are the states’ names (I see IL, but I “say” Illinois). And I know there are those of you who really do say, in your heads or aloud, “id est” and “exempli gratia” instead of “eye ee” and “ee gee.” I still love you.

Also for the most part, initialisms won’t use periods, either. FBI, CIA, NSA, IBM — no periods. I’m sure there’re some out there that do. I don’t know what they are, but I know better than to say “no such thing exists.” I’d be wrong. It’s difficult to pronounce initialisms like words, because — most of the time — there aren’t enough vowels to make it possible. How would you say “NSA” or “FBI” or “CIA” as a word? That’s why they’re initialisms. Also, you need to use the word “the” with an initialism that’s the subject or direct/indirect object of a sentence or clause. “The FBI arrived yesterday to assist with the investigation.” “The sheriff’s department called the FBI.”  However, “FBI agents were on the scene.” (In that last one it’s a proper adjective.)

Acronyms normally don’t include periods, either. I included S.H.I.E.L.D. as an example to prove there are exceptions. (And as a nod to my comics-geek friends. Heh.) Marvel Comics came up with that one, and it’s always pronounced like the word “shield,” but it’s also always styled with periods. Originally, it stood for “Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division.” However, in 1991 that was updated; now, it’s “Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate.” (Thank you, Wikipedia. ) NASA is a real-world example. National Air and Space Administration is a mouthful, so someone somewhere in their infinite wisdom said “we’ll pronounce it like a word, and say ‘nasa.'” The presence of vowels makes this mostly a no-brainer.

ETA: Some acronyms become words over time, like scuba (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) and laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). I have my Twitter editor-friend Mededitor (@mededitor) to thank for this. I write on the fly, so some things simply don’t occur to me. Thanks, Med!

Then there’s the plethora of initialisms we use (I’ll admit it, I use them when it suits me) in texting or even in casual online posting. OMG. BRB. BBIAB. TTYL. GTG. We say the letters, or some of us say the entire phrase. Doesn’t matter. Some folks will call them acronyms.They represent a phrase, not an entity like NASA or S.H.I.E.L.D.

I’m not about to attempt an exhaustive treatment of this subject. There’re plenty of other blogs about that have already done so (I checked, I saw ’em, but I didn’t read ’em closely and I didn’t take notes). Also, check your style guide. Seriously. This kind of thing is covered by any major style guide you might choose. Pick a style and stick with it (unless, as I continue to say, you’re being paid to adhere to a specific one).

Time’s up. GTG. TTYL, folks.

(Credit for the below image goes to )