Acronyms and the Indefinite Article

Raw Material for Acronyms

Acronym Raw Materials

A Trivial Pursuit

If you work in a large organization, chances are you’re familiar with a reasonably large number of acronyms. At the aerospace company for which I once labored there were hundreds upon hundreds; so many we required a company-specific dictionary to understand what they were. There were certain acronyms for which most people hadn’t the faintest idea what they actually stood for. They just became the names people used for the component or report the acronym designated.

There’s a question I often wrestled with – and argued over with others – regarding the proper use of the indefinite article when writing contains one or more of these acronyms. For the grammar police (of which I am a proud member), this isn’t a trivial question. It goes like this. For an acronym, when spoken (or sub-vocalized) with a vowel sound at its beginning, but for which the full pronunciation of the term begins with a consonant sound, which is more correct? “A” or “an”?

For instance, the acronym LOL stands for “laugh out loud”. When saying the acronym itself it begins with the vowel sound “eh”. However, when saying the entire phrase it begins with the consonant sound “l”. From my POV (which, btw, is an acronym that begins with a consonant sound regardless of which way it’s spoken), I have always used the indefinite article “an” if it begins with a vowel sound.

This may seem trivial, especially with an acronym like LOL. However, one of the most widely used terms at my former place of business was SSME, which stands for Space Shuttle Main Engine. It was used a lot and when I used the acronym I would always use it as “an SSME”. However, because when the entire name of the product was used it began with the consonant sound “S”, some people would use “a SSME”. Of course, if you were to see the acronym, but read it as the entire phrase, this would make sense. However, my experience was the opposite; almost everybody used the four letters. Hence, I thought it appropriate to write “an SSME”.

Mystery Solved

As I said, this will be to many a very trivial issue. Nevertheless, inasmuch as the correct use of language is important to many (including moi), I was reminded of this distinction last night when commenting on a Facebook post by a friend. As I was writing today’s post, I was preparing to say I’ve not seen a rule that specifically addresses this issue, but I paused and did a quick Google search. Much to my surprise, and with not a little satisfaction, I found it addressed at Purdue’sOnline Writing Lab” (OWL). Here’s the specific rule.

So . . . if you have occasion to use acronyms which start with a vowel sound, whereas the item for which the acronym is a replacement starts with a consonant sound, the rule is to use the indefinite article “an”, as opposed to “a”.

I believe World Peace is just around the corner!


About Rick Ladd

Born in 1947, I was an officially retired pensioner, but in January of 2015 I returned to work as a contractor at Aerojet Rocketdyne. I remain intensely interested in, and fascinated by, Systems Thinking, Knowledge Management, Decision Intelligence, and Business in general. I am also conversant in such concepts as innovation and ideation, collaborative tools and strategies, crowd sourcing, and the use of social media to accomplish goals ranging from improving business processes to promoting small retail businesses. While "retired" I did a little bit of freelancing as an editor/proofreader, as well as some technical writing. There's lots more where that came from. Need some help? Perhaps another set of eyes? Contact me. The first one's free! ;0) View all posts by Rick Ladd

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