Using Articles (A, An, The) Before Acronyms and Initialisms
  • 3-minute read
  • 10th February 2021

Using Articles (A, An, The) Before Acronyms and Initialisms

Acronyms (e.g., NASA, UNESCO) and initialisms (e.g., FBI, BBC) are common in writing. But when do you need to use the articles “a,” “an,” and “the” before these abbreviations? And are the rules the same for both? Find out below.

Articles and Acronyms

An acronym is made up of the first letters of a phrase or name and pronounced as a single word (e.g., “NASA” is short for “National Aeronautics and Space Administration” and pronounced to sound like “nah-sah”).

When you use an acronym as a noun, you do not need an article:

UNESCO designates World Heritage Sites.

Finland is not a member of NATO.

However, you can also use an acronym as a modifier to describe something else. In this case, you should use an article before the abbreviation if the word being modified would usually require an article. For example:

The Giza pyramids are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The UNICEF campaign raised awareness.

Above, we are not talking about the organizations themselves but using their names to specify about a site and a campaign, respectively. And since “World Heritage Site” and “campaign” would usually require an article (e.g., “a World Heritage Site” or “the campaign”), we use one before the acronym instead.

Articles and Initialisms

An initialism is like an acronym, except you pronounce each letter separately (e.g., “FBI” is short for “Federal Bureau of Investigation” and pronounced “Eff Bee Eye”).

Unlike acronyms, you often need an article before an initialism when using it as either a noun or a modifier. For instance:

He has a new job at the BBC.

The UN was voting later that day.

An FBI agent has infiltrated the group.

The DVD player is broken.

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However, when you use an initialism as a noun that names a condition or illness, a substance, or a method of doing something, you do not usually need an article:

DDT has been banned for many years.

Too much typing has given me RSI.

The course teaches you how to use CPR.

Bear in mind that you may come across some organizations that don’t use articles before their names when used as nouns, such as BMW.

Indefinite Articles: “A” or “An”?

When you use an indefinite article with either type of abbreviation, whether you use “a” or “an” depends on the way you pronounce the term, not the spelling.

If the abbreviation starts with a consonant sound, use “a”:

A BBC employee was interviewed today.

He was a USAF pilot.

If the term starts with a vowel sound, use “an”:

We have an IKEA couch at home.

He said he was an MP.

As you can see above, sometimes the first letter of a word does not match the sound it makes. For example, “u” is a vowel but it is pronounced with a “y” sound in “USAF,” and “m” is a consonant but “MP” starts with a vowel sound. This makes it important to focus on how the term sounds, not the letter it starts with.

Proofreading for Grammar

Hopefully, this guide has explained how to use articles with acronyms and initialisms in your writing. To be completely sure your writing is error free, though, why not upload a 500-word document for a free trial of our proofreading services?

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