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Do you use “a” or “an” before acronyms?

Take "StackExchange" and its acronym, SE, as an example: I read a StackExchange thread the other day about the history of bananas!

If you were to use the "SE" acronym instead of "StackExchange," you would probably write: *I read an SE thread the other day about the history of bananas!* The way in which this differs from my situation is that it's very reasonable to assume that when you write "SE," that you are perfectly fine with the two letters "ess" and "eee" standing in for "Stack Exchange," much like FCC, SEC, NASDAQ, NATO, etc. completely stand in and are even far more well-known than their longer, official names.

Let's say, however, that you're talking about "solar-powered asynchronous communication transmission," which you abbreviate with "SPACT" because you don't want to keep retyping "solar-powered asynchronous communication transmission," not only because you want to be lazy but also because reading those words more than one time every sentence can get in the way of comprehension. Now, if you were to pronounce this "ess-pee...etc." then, of course, you'd say "an SPACT device," but let's say you don't want "SPACT" to be referred to, phonetically, by its letters (or even "SPACT") and are simply using it as an abbreviation? Does it retain its indefinite article ("a") from its original version ("solar-powered asynchronous communication transmission")?

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That's not an acronym, is it? I thought an acronym was when you pronounced the abbreviation as a word (NASA, FUBAR). Isn't "SE" just an initialism? –  user362 Apr 29 '11 at 19:35
    
@Al: In my handy solid world OED: acronym - (noun) a word formed from the initial letters of other words, e.g. NATO. I'm not sure if that agrees or disagrees with your definition. I guess an acronym is only an acronym if the initialism has been adopted as a word, rather than based on its pronouncability. –  Matt Эллен Apr 29 '11 at 19:51
    
@Matt: Well, yes, that is what I was getting at. –  user362 Apr 29 '11 at 20:12
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marked as duplicate by MrHen, Uticensis, RegDwigнt Apr 29 '11 at 20:27

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1 Answer

It's whether the pronunciation would now start with a vowel sound that controls. So the answer to your nominal overall question is "no", and everything else you ask about follows naturally. (Yes, it's "an SPACRD" if you are expecting an initialism rather than acronym pronunciation, though I personally would not expect one in that case; if you write that, people are going to say "spackurd", not "ess pee eh see arr dee".)

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Right, as you can tell from a NASA project or a PBS station. –  Jason Orendorff Apr 29 '11 at 19:39
    
I changed the example slightly to "SPACT" in order to better capture the subtleties, but the substance of your answer should still remain valid despite the change. Thanks! –  Michael Apr 29 '11 at 19:53
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