The Difference Between Spoken and Written Language: Acronym Edition

11 Feb

Something I’ve noticed recently online is the issue of the indefinite articles: “a” vs. “an”.  Many people probably know the rule for this, and many people probably just do it unconsciously.  Essentially, you have “a” before a word beginning with a consonant sound (not consonant letter!), and “an” before a word beginning with a vowel sound (not vowel letter!).  This kind of thing is called “allomorphy”, made up of the Greek roots(morphemes) “allo”, meaning “other”, and “morph”, meaning “shape”(form).  They have different forms depending on the words around them.

Now, there’s an interesting intersection between written and spoken language here:

1. Often, people taught the rule explicitly put “a” before any written word with an initial consonant letter, and “an” before any written word with an initial vowel letter.  There are a few variations of this.  And with dialects, there can be differences, as well.  The “a historical”/”an ‘istorical” debate is still raging, for example.  And then you have the examples like “an apron”, which was originally “a napron”, but because of the ambiguity in speech, people reanalyzed the morpheme boundary to get our modern usage.  The “an (vowel)-” beginning was just so much more common than the “a n–” combination, so people who were hearing the phrase for the first time just assumed one analysis based on their past experience.

2. The issue of whether an acronym should be read as its individual letters, it’s whole word pronunciation, or the entire phrase that it represents.  For example, should the indefinite article for the new age category in publishing, “New Adult”–acronym “NA”–be written “an NA” or “a NA”.  The first version would be correct if it was being read “en ey”, but the second would be correct if it was read “New Adult”–despite being written in acronym form–and although it doesn’t apply for this case, if “NA” was a true acronym instead of an initialism, you could argue it should be “a nah”.


Personally, I would never read “NA” as “New Adult” out loud, and so seeing “a NA novel” confuses the heck out of me for a second or two.  But other people seem to think that’s a legitimate reading, and who am I o gainsay them?  I wonder how this might apply in an editing situation, where the editor and the writer disagree about which is the proper way to read an acronym.  Or in a critique?

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Posted by on February 11, 2014 in Linguistics


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