The or not the

By John E. McIntyre

The Baltimore Sun

10:01 AM EDT, September 26, 2012


On Twitter, @SherrieVossMatthews inquires about the use of articles with initialisms and acronyms.* An article at Daily Writing Tips summarizes the conventions:

"Because acronyms like NASA are pronounced as words ('na-suh,' in this case), there’s no need to precede them with the definite article: You wouldn’t write 'Budget cutbacks hit the NASA hard.' (Though the is essential if NASA is used as an adjective, as in 'Budget cutbacks hit the NASA project hard.')

"But initialisms require the: 'The FBI announced his capture several hours later.' That’s because the term is pronounced letter by letter: “eff-bee-eye.” (The only usage that omits the definite article is in a headline: 'FBI Announces Suspect’s Capture.')"

But as always, there are variants. In recent years, I've noticed, reporters have taken on the clipped, bureaucratic practice of referring to initialism agencies without the article: "EPA announced a grant yesterday."** This journalistic echolalia occurs throughout the business as writers mimic their sources. Reporters covering the educational bureaucracy start writing noun-noun-noun jargon: "teacher evaluation standards." Police reporters come to write like cops: "fled the scene" for "ran away."

There is a lot about the use of the definite article that is idiomatic. We always speak of the University of Michigan but Michigan State University. In Baltimore, it is always the Johns Hopkins University. That's not affectation but just how academics name it; that is how professors referred to Hopkins when I was an undergraduate at the Michigan State. (See?) But when I was at The Cincinnati Enquirer and learned that Ohio State was insisting on being referred to as The Ohio State University, we greeted the announcement with howls of derision.

I seem to have drifted some from Ms. Voss's question, but when you come here, you go where the ride takes you.


*If you need clarification, an acronym is an abbreviations that is pronounced as a word: AIDS. An initialism is an abbreviation in which the individual letters are pronounced: CIA.

**Actually, that would be "EPA yesterday announced a grant," because reporters are thoroughly indoctrinated early on to put adverbs in awkward and unnatural places in sentences.