Abbreviated Details

We writers occasionally use abbreviations in our writing, so there are a few fairly intuitive rules that apply to these shortened word forms.

First, when should you use an article (such as the or an) before an abbreviated term or name? Generally, if “the” is part of the name, but not absorbed by the abbreviation, use “the” as if the abbreviation were spelled out. Here are some examples The Chicago Manual of Style gives:

  • The NFL comprises thirty-one teams.
  • NFL games rarely get postponed owing to inclement weather.
  • In its ninety-two years, the NAACP has been a cornerstone of American civil liberties organizations.
  • NAACP membership is open to all who can afford it.
  • Advertisers for AT&T made a splash by incorporating the wah-wah pedal into recent advertisements for high-bandwidth cable.
  • Do you listen to the BBC?

What about putting the letter a in front of an acronym? Would you write “A NFL game doesn’t interest me”?

We’re taught you only use an if the article precedes a vowel. However, writers should write what they say. Acronyms are called initialisms, which means they are constructs of initials. You would say literally “En Ef El,” so, as is the rule with anything following the articles a and an, anything that begins with a vowel sound should be treated as if starting with a vowel.

I will gladly give you an MBA in grammar for writing “an NFL game.”

5 Responses to “Abbreviated Details”

  1. Bailish November 1, 2013 at 1:08 am #

    Are all these rules the same for British as for American English? I’ve seen violations of the last rule (the choice of article preceding an initialism) frequently.

    • cslakin November 1, 2013 at 6:21 am #

      I’m not familiar with the UK rules as I edit for US. Maybe a UK editor reading this can chime in and comment!

  2. Russell November 1, 2013 at 9:39 am #

    Ummm…shame on the Chicago! The NFL comprises thirty-*two* teams. Perhaps they weren’t counting the Bears’ arch-rival, Green Bay.

    And I’m glad to hear you support “an NFL team.” Few things ruin a nice, rhythmic phrase quite as much as stilted grammar.

    • cslakin November 1, 2013 at 9:54 am #

      I wonder if that’s how many teams there were at the time they wrote that!

  3. Edward Curley November 3, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

    Really, an MBA for knowing that rule? Okay, you owe me an MBA.

    I’ve known forever about the word “an” before a word beginning with a vowel, but it was only about five years ago that words that sounded like they began with a vowel sound also qualified.

    En F L

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