Indefinite Article With Initialisms

By Maeve Maddox

Note: An initialism is a group of initial letters, each pronounced separately, used as an abbreviation of a name.

Many English speakers who probably use the indefinite article an in front of a vowel when speaking seem to encounter a mental disconnect when it comes to writing.

The following examples were found on major news sites or on sites offering professional services or advice:

Pieces of the bag recovered have been sent to a FBI lab for forensic testing. 

The 404 or Not Found error message is a HTTP standard response code.

Step-by-step tutorial on how to add a LED to a USB thumb drive.

Applying to a MBA program can help you advance in your career or switch careers entirely.

A NBC executive indicated that the independent formatted Nonstop channels were doing well but needed separate 24/7 programming. 

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Did you setup and assign a STMP server for this account?

The problem lies in an incomplete understanding of the rule for the use of a and an.

Many speakers retain the rule as “Use an before words that begin with a vowel and a before words that begin with a consonant.”

The complete rule is “Use an before words that begin with a vowel sound and a before words that begin with a consonant sound.”

The 26 letters of the alphabet are sound symbols, but the symbols have names. And several of the consonant letters have names that begin with vowel sounds:

F [ef]
H [aitch]
L [el]
M [em]
N [en]
S [es]
R [ar]

Here’s the correct way to write the words and initialisms given in boldface above:

Pieces of the bag recovered have been sent to an FBI lab for forensic testing. 

The 404 or Not Found error message is an HTTP standard response code.

Step-by-step tutorial on how to add an LED to a USB thumb drive.

Applying to an MBA program can help you advance in your career or switch careers entirely.

An NBC executive indicated that the independent formatted Nonstop channels were doing well but needed separate 24/7 programming. 

There are several benefits to being an RSVP Volunteer.

Did you setup and assign an STMP server for this account?

In deciding whether to write a or an in front of an initialism, say the name of the first letter. If the letter name begins with a vowel sound, use an.

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7 Responses to “Indefinite Article With Initialisms”

  • David Petrie

    I’d be interested in an article dealing with initialisms that are pronounced as if they were words (for example, I’ve sometimes heard “LED” said as a word rather than as its initials (“ell ee dee”). Thanks!

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    Thank you. As a screenwriter and novelist (and former journalist) I have wondered about this rule for a long time. I frequently use initialisms in my work, CIA, FBI, DOJ, etc., and have for the most part intuitively gotten it right, for example, “a FBI agent” sounds wrong but if you were to pronounce the agency’s full name “a” sounds, and in fact is, correct. Finally, I know the rule thanks to DWT. Again, thank you.

  • Kane Toad

    LED can be an acronym or an initialism.

  • Kane Toad

    This older post is useful too: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/initialisms-and-acronyms/

    The comments are interesting!

  • Dale A Wood

    AN IBM PC clone.
    An Apple MacIntosh.
    An AT&T telephone.

  • Dale A Wood

    People who say LED as a word are just lost in the woods.
    DAW

  • venqax

    I have to say that I don’t understand why this concept is at all mysterious. It is very simple and always has been, A before a consonant SOUND, and AN before not. It has always been tied to the sound, not the letter. No one has ever said, “an use” or “an university” or “a hour” or “a honest man”. So why would acronyms or letter names as they are pronounced be an exception to the rule? There is no reason for anyone to think “a FBI agent” or “an UV screen” would be correct. All you need to know is whether a given set of initials is said as initials or as a word (acronym). “a NATO summit”, “an NBC channel”.

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