Grammarians: 'An' or 'A' in front of (certain) acronyms and abbreviations

Should you use ‘an’ or ‘a’ in before MS (for Microsoft)? Example:

I would have said ‘an’ because - even though ‘M’ is a consonant, it is pronounced ‘em.’

You are correct. Read the sentence aloud and use a or an accordingly.

I agree with the procedure, but differ with the conclusion. Your major problem is you shouldn’t abbreviate the name Microsoft if you are trying to evaluate the sentence. That is your first mistake. Corporate names shouldn’t be abbreviated on the page or in speech. Try it this way:

We have difficulty locating a Microsoft representative.

We have difficulty locating an Microsoft representative.

I pick the first.

There is still another problem with the sentence.

The proper way to write the sentence is this:

We have had difficulty locating a Microsoft representative.

Other tenses:

We will have difficulty locating…

We are having difficulty…
“We have” is broken English because it doesn’t specify the time. “We” just tells you that the person you are talking to shares your dillemea, so really doesn’t convey much further information. Better to split it into two:

“We have a problem. We are having difficulty locating…”

Or if you are talking to your spouse when you get home:

“Honey, we have a problem at work. We are…”

And judging from the other error, we may be dealing with a person who also speaks with incorrect grammar, so that ain’t gonna work.

/I did the IT for an ESL school.
//Can speak to a person for 20 seconds and assign them a level.
///I am only a decent speller, but my grammar is cold blooded.
////Useful Fark slashie meme WILL infiltrate.
/////SD geeks can just consider them footnotes.
//////When you know the rule you have the right go break 'em!
///////Or so some teacher told me.

LOL. I fully admit the typo: It should have been

Actually, MS was just an example and the sentence was made up. The conversation came about at a meeting where the boss had a government acronym in his email - but I don’t recall what the acronym was, so I simply used MS and a made-up sentence.

Let us not focus on the typo - and perhaps instead try to focus on the question (I know this is often difficult for dopers):

Do you use ‘a’ or ‘an’ prior to acronyms whose letters would be pronounced as if they started with a vowel? The letter ‘M’ is a good one since it is pronounced ‘em’.


Um, sorry. Didn’t realize you were from Southern Pennsylvania. Didn’t mean to imply you were an English as a Second Language (ESL) student. I have relatives in Stuebenville, Ohio, and they are in the Pittsburgh market. Great part of the country, and one of the things that I love about the United States, is that it is so many different places, and people have so many great ways of speaking. My own posts are filled slang and bad grammar. In a “Proper” setting, say an annual report for a company, my grammatic advice still stands.

/Or now that I look at your SD handle, maybe English isn’t your first language.
//Not that there is anything wrong with that.
///Just trying to help :wink:

I stand behind my original answer, despite the dismissive responses of later posters.

Well, now you have changed your question. You didn’t specify in the OP that you were talking about acronyms used in spoken sentences. As twickster was able to intuit, the real meaning of your questoin better than literal 'ol me, it does depend on the acronym and here are a couple of correct usages:

A NASA report… = A National and Areonoatics Administration report…

An OMB report. = An Office of Mangement and Budget report…

But you should never abbreviate names of companies in written correspondence. Government acronyms like ED, OMB, or NASA are abbreivations for well known agencies, and can be used in industry specific correspondence, becuase they should be very evident to the reader, based on the context. FBI. CIA. etc. You get the picture.

MS could mean Microsoft, Multiple Sclerosis, Gloria Stienem’s bankrupt magazine, whatever. When you are talking money, gimme the full name and the trading symbol, thanks!

And, IMHO, if you are in a meeting and you refer to Microsoft as “MS” you are a dweeb, but if you refer to HP as Hewlett Packard, it is equally uncool. Go figure.

/Since you are using speech, I would go for "An MS representative’
//Would you have a problem saying “An HP rep”?
///Grammarians have nothing to do with ordinary speech. Have you ever read a transcript of any chat show?

No, I was saying that in writing you should use whichever one would sound right if you were speaking.

Just in case anyone is still confused because of Happy Wanderer - and I know I would be - trickster’s answer is the correct one. You use the sound rather than the spelling to determine “a” or “an” in front of an abbreviation, both in speech and in writing, even formal writing.

You don’t abbreviate names of corporations in formal writing. Go read some.

Certain acronyms will still be used in “formal” writing – FBI, NASA, ACLU.

Whether one is writing in a formal style or an informal style, twickster’s response is correct.

For my own clarification (since I’ve often found myself wondering about this very thing, but apparently not enough to actually ask about it), when an abbreviation is used in a sentence and you’re assigning either an ‘a’ or ‘an’, do you read the abbreviation as an abbreviation, or do you read it as if it were written out?

i.e.: in the OP’s example, “We have difficulty locating a(n) MS representative.”

If read as two letters, I’d use ‘an’ because M starts with a vowel sound; whereas if read as Microsoft, I’d use ‘a’. Which is the expected (grammatically speaking, not common usage) reading, ‘MS’ or ‘Microsoft’?

I’ve never been able to extrapolate the rule on my own because it seems that both interpretations are used.

You do it according to what actually appears in the sentence – so it would be “an MS rep,” but “a Microsoft rep.”

As I already stated.

One doesn’t abbreveate corporations in writing.


Notice how General Electric is spelled out. In formal writing you spell out the name of companies.

/Everyone in this thread who has written profesionally on business and tech, raise your hand.
//Raises hand!

And now that I think of it, there is a reason that people say “GE” and not “MS” in common speech.

GE has actively promoted themselves with the acronym:

“GE, we bring good things to life!”

You have never heard:

“MS, we bring blue screen of death!”

Similarly, Archer Daniels Midland promotes themselves as ADM, not to be confused with AMD.

But Foster Wheeler, doesn’t promote themselves as “FW”, so it is largely a matter of corporate marketing whether the acronym is suitable in verbal (or even internet) conversation.

In formal writing, the recipient doesn’t usually have the recourse of interrogating the author for clarification as one would in conversation or even a forum like this, so it is better to err on the side of the specific.

/See, there is a reason for everything!

Nor does one spell “abbreviate” that way, if you’re going to be picky. Nor does one do that irritating slash thing. The OP has already stated that that’s not the point of their post, and the question still stands when considering other abbreviations. I’m not sure why you keep harping on this one perceived error in Khadaji’s post, but you’re getting in the way of the actual answering of the question.

Or, say, “an FBI agent”. And to add one more voice to the chorus, twickster is right.

Good grief.

First, the names of numerous corporations these days are no more than initials. Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC (and then reverted). The United States Steel Corporation became USX (and then also reverted). The Aluminum Corporation of America was always known as Alcoa and that’s now its official name. There are scads of examples.

Second, it is proper style in all types of writing to write out the name of an organization in full for the the first reference and then follow it with an abbreviation to use thereafter. E.g. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). An FBI spokesperson said… You would not write it out as a Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesperson said … each and every time.

This is true in academic style sheets as well.

Can you point to any exceptions?

Yes, I think we all agree that in CONVERSATION “an MS representative” is correct. Gawrsh! You guys are over complimcatafying it! Just what I would expect from a board run from the Greater Chicagoland Metopolitan Area. Just don’t pass it off as formal writing. Do I have to find the cite from the Chicago Manual of Style? Sheesh.

/From the Greater Chicagoland Metropolitan Area. :smiley: