Can you explain why we say AN NHS provision but A National Health provision. Or A UFO but An UNIDENTIFIED Fly Object. Are there any rules regarding the use of A or An when using initials such as ! In business FME ? Thanks

  • 3
    The rules are not about spelling but about the pronunciation. If the word following the article starts with a vowel in pronunciation, use an. Works for acronyms as for all other words :)
    – oerkelens
    May 12 '14 at 11:33
  • To echo Oerkelens, it is "an MP3 Player but a Member of Parliament", "a university but an umbrella".
    – M.N
    May 12 '14 at 11:53
  • Please search the site before asking. This question has been asked, and answered, dozens of times before. The canonical question is number four on our all-time most frequenty asked questions list.
    – RegDwigнt
    May 12 '14 at 12:09

When parsing initials, you're pronouncing the name of the letter and not the word itself. In your case of the NHS, when speaking/reading those initials, you don't say 'National Health Service'. Instead, you'd say 'Enn Ach Ess'. 'Enn' begins with a vowel, so you use 'an' for the indefinite article.

Your example of 'UFO' operates on the same principle, but the name of the letter 'U' begins with a long 'u' sound (i.e. it's pronounced 'yoo'), which always takes 'a' as the indefinite article, e.g. 'a union [yoo-nion] representative'. Initials beginning with a 'U' will therefore always take 'an' as the indefinite article.

So, the initials stand-in for the names they represent, but when we write them, the single-letter characters we use also stand-in the names of those very letters. It is the latter which dictates how we deal with vowel sounds.

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