When saying acronyms out loud, almost always the last syllable is accented (no matter how long the acronym is): US*A*, U*N*, RSV*P*, etc.

Accenting any syllable but the last makes you sound silly (try it). Why is this the case?

  • 1
    Many acronyms are pronounced as words in their own right, rather than spelt out (some would say this is what constitutes an acronym and I tend to agree). Emphasis in those spoken abbreviations varies considerably.
    – itsbruce
    Oct 25, 2012 at 10:14
  • 4
    Your contention is demonstrably false. Try pronouncing NAACP and you'll see that the last syllable is not stressed. In fact, with respect to initialisms that are extensions of other acronyms (IDE => EIDE, VGA => SVGA), it is the extension (i.e., the difference) that is always given the stress because it is that syllable that underscores the distinguishing feature.
    – Robusto
    Oct 25, 2012 at 12:36

4 Answers 4


One way of interpreting this is that in their underlying form, acronyms have stress on all of the syllables, but the rightmost one is what "wins out" when they are pronounced. According to some theories of English stress, it is a general principle that the rightmost "major stress" in a word receives the primary stress (or the accent). In these theories, words like "facilitate" are analyzed as having either no stress, or only a "minor" stress on the last syllable.

There is some evidence for the presence of underlying lexical stress on non-final syllables of acronyms. When a two-syllable acronym comes immediately before a word that starts with a stressed syllable, the acronym may be accented on its first syllable instead of on its second. E.g. even if "UN" is accented on the second syllable in isolation, it might be accented on the first syllable in a phrase like "UN peacekeeping troops".

Numbers ending in "-teen", such as nineteen, are a well known example of words that may show stress shift and that can be analyzed as having adjacent lexically stressed syllables.


The way I hear these and pronounce them myself, I'd surmise that the accent is an end-marker.

  • 1
    @MattЭллен I wasn't looking for a benefit really. It was a comment first because there's no backing up reference. Now I find there's no other canonical answer that provides a strong reference -- Ergo. The comment is now gone!
    – Kris
    Oct 25, 2012 at 11:25

I don't agree with your observation.

I have heard not too infrequently,

  • Could you please kindly R S ^V P my invitation to your own party?

    A mother's anxious request to her daughter for her daughter's engagement party.

  • The ^U S of A today has won another gold medal.

    An excited news anchor.

  • The ^U N has once again failed to take resolute action towards Syria.

    A person resigned to disappointment with the situation in Syria.

  • ^U S - normally the first letter is accented.

  • ^I B M, because saying I B ^M would be awkward.

  • ^U K is more frequently expressed than U ^K. U ^K sounds awkward.

  • ^DD T. D D ^T sounds awkward.

  • ^F B I

  • ^F U

Therefore, your observation is not accurate.

  • 2
    Haha I guess there must be some element of subjectivity--I disagree with most of your examples. I've always heard IB^M (do you really say ^IBM? it sounds funny), and FB^I. Oct 25, 2012 at 5:18
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    What dialect of English do you speak? What dialect do you hear every day? Sounds like the OP was referring to typical Midwestern AmE & not BrE or the AmE spoken in the USA's southeast. The OP also said "...almost always the last syllable is accented". Notice the important qualifier almost. Therefore, the OP's observation is accurate enough.
    – user21497
    Oct 25, 2012 at 5:19
  • @jamaicanworm: How can you disagree with what someone reports as fact? Blessed Geek is obviously not a speaker of AmE but of BrE and lives not in the USA but somewhere else where people actually speak the way he says they do. I think you're both being a bit unreasonable here. Food fight, anyone?
    – user21497
    Oct 25, 2012 at 5:23
  • 2
    Food fight? "Hey, hey, calm down, you two... it's a floor wax, and a dessert topping!" Give this IBM commercial a watch. Six seconds in, the narrator says IB^M PS^2, supporting the O.P.'s assertion. But near the end, the same speaker says "^IBM authorized dealer," much like Blessed Geek might say it. Maybe some acronyms shift the syllable of emphasis based on surrounding words, and whether they're used in a sentence or question?
    – J.R.
    Oct 25, 2012 at 8:29
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    I disagree, @Kris. Disagreeing with the premise of a question is fine to do in an answer. Oct 25, 2012 at 11:52

Your examples are all properly and idiomatically called abbreviations or initialisms, not acronyms, despite what the dictionary says: There's disagreement about the terminology, as is often the case, no matter what the topic. acronym: a word (as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term; also : an abbreviation (as FBI) formed from initial letters : initialism. An article on this topic appears in Wikipedia: see the bottom of the article for the world's longest acronym:

ADCOMSUBORDCOMPHIBSPAC, a United States Navy term that stands for "Administrative Command, Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet Subordinate Command." Another term COMNAVSEACOMBATSYSENGSTA, which stands for "Commander, Naval Sea Systems Combat Engineering Station" is longer but the word "Combat" is not shortened."

and the world's longest initialism:

The world's longest initialism, according to the Guinness Book of World Records is NIIOMTPLABOPARMBETZHELBETRABSBOMONIMONKONOTDTEKHSTROMONT (Нииомтплабопармбетжелбетрабсбомонимонконотдтехстромонт). The 56-letter initialism (54 in Cyrillic) is from the Concise Dictionary of Soviet Terminology and means "The laboratory for shuttering, reinforcement, concrete and ferroconcrete operations for composite-monolithic and monolithic constructions of the Department of the Technology of Building-assembly operations of the Scientific Research Institute of the Organization for building mechanization and technical aid of the Academy of Building and Architecture of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."

I can't find any explanation on the Net, but it seems to me, as Kris commented, that stressing the final letter is an "end marker": The abbreviation's over now, folks.

However, I can imagine someone in Waycross, Georgia, stressing the first letter in UN, just as they stress the first syllable of the word insurance. Can anyone from that neck of the woods chime in on that possibility?

  • And when asked of someone who works there, "Where do you work?" what do they say?
    – Jim
    Oct 25, 2012 at 5:31
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    I, personally, think it is more useful to maintain a distinction between abbreviations — that is, things that are shortened in written form but not in spoken form, such as etc., Mr., Blvd. — and acronyms, things that are shortened in both written and spoken form, as in UN, NASA, JPEG, FAQ. Maintaining a distinction based on what strategy is used to pronounce the shortened forms seems much less useful (and, indeed, in cases like JPEG and FAQ, ambiguous).
    – nohat
    Oct 25, 2012 at 6:37
  • Is FBI an acronym or "initialism"? When people pronounce it "fibee". Oct 26, 2012 at 5:23
  • The terminology is vague and inconsistently applied. It doesn't really matter. I've never heard anyone call it the "Fibee", which I assume means that someone lied about how dangerous the FBI is to US citizens. I would call it the "Fibber" because it lied to my friends and family when its agents investigated me for anti-Vietnam War activities while I was in the US Navy back in the late 1960s.
    – user21497
    Oct 26, 2012 at 5:35
  • 2
    South Carolina speaker here. I stress the first letter when saying UN, indeed. Feb 8, 2019 at 12:39

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