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Grammar Tips & Tidbits

 

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Acronyms & Initialisms: When to Use A or An?

 

Last week we discussed the difference between acronyms and intialisms, and we reviewed some common redundant acronyms. Now you know to avoid the redundant phrase ATM machine, but did you know that there are special rules about using the words a or an when referring to an acronym or initialism?

First we'll review the difference between an acronym and an initialism. An acronym is pronounced as a word (NAFTA, NATO); an initialism is pronounced letter by letter (IBM, DVD). The 10th edition of The Gregg Reference Manual (¶1101) designates a special rule for initialisms beginning with the following consonants: F, H, L, M, N, R, and S. When an initialism begins with one of these consonants, it is preceded by the word an, not a. On the other hand, acronyms are always preceded by the word a, even when they begin with the consonants listed above.

To illustrate this point more clearly, I have provided some examples from The Gregg Reference Manual.

Initialisms vs. Acronyms:

●  an FBI agent vs. a FICA tax increase
●  an HMO physician vs. a HUD project
●  an M.B.A. degree vs. a MADD fund-raising drive
●  an NAACP member vs. a NATO strategy

My personal favorite is the abbreviation for Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), because it can be pronounced as a word (fak), or letter by letter (F-A-Q). If you follow the guidelines above, you would say "a FAQ" when it is pronounced as a word and "an FAQ" when it is pronounced one letter at a time.

These special rules may sound confusing, but luckily this rule of grammar usually comes naturally when speaking. It just doesn't sound right to say a FBI agent or an HUD project, does it? Use your gut instinct on this one, and you should be A-OK!

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