Using a or an before an abbreviation

There are two schools of thought on this subject: "vocalisation of the abbreviation" and "vocalisation of the first word".

Abbreviation verbalised

By this rule, if the abbreviation starts with a vowel-sounding letter, the article used is "an"; if it starts with a consonant-sounding letter, it takes an "a". This would give "an NHS hospital" and "a BBC documentary".

vowel-sounding letters (take "an"):A E F H I L M N O R S X

consonant-sounding letters (take "a"):B C D G J K P Q T U V W Y Z

Note: H is pronounced "aitch"!

Word verbalised

By this method, the first letter of the first word as it is read out determines whether "a" or "an" is used. Here we would have "a NHS hospital" ("a National Health Service hospital"), or "an UV lamp" ("an ultraviolet lamp").

The second method can look and read quite awkwardly but is just about acceptable as long as the style is used consistently, or where abbreviations are commonly fleshed out in the head and in speech. Since the first method reads more naturally in the head, it's easy to slip into it when the second style is supposedly being observed. The first method is by far the more popular.


An acronym is an abbreviation that is read out like a word, such as NASA, OPEC, NATO, etc. So here we would always have "a NASA spacecraft", etc.

Need more info? Discuss words, phrases, spelling and punctuation at the gpuss forum ...