We recently received this great question:
I use a few abbreviations when I write, including FBI and NATO. Sometimes I use “the” before them, but other times it seems wrong. Is there a rule for this? How do I use articles before abbreviations?
What is the right way to use the or a before abbreviations?
The short answer
There’s no hard and fast rule. Your choice of what to put before an abbreviation will be dictated by usage and convention.
As you’ve noticed, it seems funny to write “the NATO” but perfectly natural to write “the FBI.” Here’s why…
Is the abbreviation an initialism or an acronym?
When abbreviations are formed from the initial letters of a phrase or organization name, they are classified as either initialisms or acronyms. With an initialism, each letter is pronounced separately: FBI, DVD, UFO, IRS, RSVP. An acronym is similar, but the letters are read together as a word: NATO, NASA, UNICEF, AIDS.
Some rules of thumb to guide you
- Articles (a, an, the) are common with initialisms: I called the FBI after a UFO landed and an alien told me to go to an ATM.
- Articles are less common with acronyms: I wondered if NATO or NASA would get involved.
- However, the articles reappear when an acronym is being used as an adjective: The NATO strategy would likely differ from a NASA scientist’s approach.
Choosing a or an
When you need an indefinite article (a or an) before the abbreviation, make your choice based on the first sound—not the first letter. You’d pick up a DVD, remember a PIN, and, also, spot a UFO. You wouldn’t write “an UFO,” because even though UFO’s first letter is a vowel, it starts with a consonant sound.
Following the same logic, you’d use an if the abbreviation begins with a vowel sound, even if the first letter is a consonant: read about an FBI raid, link to an HTML website, pull out an ID card.
Final tips: Pull out that ID card for an alien only if the alien goes first, and never share your PIN.
We hope that this has helped you with how to use articles before abbreviations. If you have questions about this article, or would like to submit a question of your own, you can do that right on our Ask the Editor page.