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April 12th, 2006

A or an (acronym) / stupider?

by Barbara Wallraff

Donna Chardeen, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “I work at a credit union. My industry is overrun with acronyms, and my question is about using ‘the’ and ‘a’ or ‘an’ with them. For example, I say ‘the National Credit Union Administration’ when referring to the federal regulator, and then call it ‘NCUA’ -- not ‘the NCUA.’ I say ‘a federal credit union’ the first time and ‘an FCU’ thereafter. I find myself in the minority, but ‘a FCU’ just doesn’t sound right. Is there a right way and a wrong way to use acronyms?”

Dear Donna: Yes, there is, and you’re using them right. Before I explain the rules you’re following, though, I should tell you that in the language industry, in technical usage NCUA and FCU aren’t acronyms but “initialisms.” That’s because they’re pronounced as letters (“en-see-you-ay,” “ef-see-you”). “Acronyms” are abbreviations pronounced as words -- like AIDS and ZIP code (the “ZIP” part stands for “Zone Improvement Plan”).

But I digress. The main thing to keep in mind about both initialisms and acronyms is that they lead separate lives from the spelled-out names from which they sprang. Whether to use “the” or “a” or “an” with “FCU” has almost nothing to do with whether you use one of those words with “federal credit union.”

You’ll sometimes hear that “a” is correct before words that start with consonants and “an” is correct before words starting with vowels, but that’s an oversimplification. “A” is correct before words that start with consonant sounds -- but the letters for the consonants F, H, L, M, N, R, S and X, when pronounced, start with vowel sounds: “ef,” “aich,” “el” and so on. (On the flip side of the coin, the vowel U is considered to start with a consonant sound: “you.”)

Although “federal” starts with a consonant sound, and therefore we say “a federal credit union,” “FCU” starts with a vowel sound, and we’re supposed to say “an FCU.”

What about “the”? We say “the CIA,” “the FBI,” “the U.S.” and “the U.N.” -- but we say just plain “CBS,” “CBC,” “FEMA” and “UNESCO.” True acronyms -- the ones pronounced as words -- almost never take “the.” Unfortunately, initialisms can go either way, and there’s no logical rule about which ones take “the” and which don’t. When in doubt, try to find an official document from the organization itself (I easily found one online for NCUA), see whether it uses “the,” and follow its lead.

Susan Hall, of Gaylord, Mich., writes: “I have an ongoing dispute with a co-worker and two sons of another co-worker. Is ‘stupider’ a valid word? The guys seem to think that ‘more stupid’ is the correct way to say someone is less intelligent than someone else. Which is correct?”

Dear Susan: Well, let’s put it this way: Your opinion is better informed than theirs. “Stupider” is a perfectly good word. Anyone not inclined to believe me can check a dictionary, like the American Heritage or Webster’s Third New International, that gives comparative and superlative endings (“-er” and “-est”) for adjectives that have them. “More stupid” is not necessarily wrong. But where a comparative form like “stupider” exists, it’s generally better form to use it than to put “more” in front of the adjective.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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