Since when are "NATO" and "NAFTA" proper nouns?

I’ve been sesing this a fair bit in news media recently: “NATO” and “NAFTA” are now being treated as proper nouns: “Nato” and “Nafta”. But other acronyms are still getting the acronym treatment: “WTO”, “WHO” and “EU”.

Has there been a new style guide on this for some reason?

I have never once seen it written as “Nato.” These are acronyms and should be capitalized throughout. I suspect incompetence on the part of the author or editor.

Probably due to common use, while acronyms are typically capitalized to show they are acronyms, even non-proper noun forms are often not, when was the last time you saw LASER or the game of TAG in text as an example.

or SCUBA ?

I see Nato and Nafta occasionally.

We just did a thread on this:

If you say it as a word, only the first is capitalized.
If you say the letters, like WHO or CIA, it’s all caps.

I think that I mostly seem to see it on English news sites, like the BBC:

Nato example
Nafta example

From what I recall seeing, US-based news sites typically still use the all-caps acronym versions.

From Wikipedia:
“Some publications choose to capitalize only the first letter of acronyms, reserving all-caps styling for initialisms, writing the pronounced acronyms “Nato” and “Aids” in mixed case, but the initialisms “USA” and “FBI” in all caps. For example, this is the style used in The Guardian,[67] and BBC News typically edits to this style (though its official style guide, dating from 2003, still recommends all-caps[68]). The logic of this style is that the pronunciation is reflected graphically by the capitalization scheme.”

Here they are making a distinction between “initialisms” which are pronounced as individual letters (WTO, FBI, CIA) and “acronyms” that are pronounced like words (Nasa, Nafta, Nato).

It’s not incompetence. It’s intentional.

There are prominent publications whose style guides call for retaining all caps only when an abbreviation is pronounced as a series of individual letters as opposed to as a word. Thus: U.N., E.U., WTO, U.S., BMI, FBI, CIA, HIV …, but Nato, Nafta, aids, Ascap, Unesco, Unicef, … just like radar and laser and scuba, these are capitalized as ordinary words.

This is extremely common and has been for at least a couple of decades if you read news sources that follow British style guides. I’ve been seeing “Nato” and “Nasa” in the British press for at least 20 years. It’s the whole acronym vs initialism/abbreviation thing.

Not to mention radar, quango and laser.

Tag is not an acronym, despite the stupid image macro going viral on Facebook right now. It’s from an Old English word, “Tek”, which means to touch. The game (and name) is hundreds of years old.

Be careful what you take for granted on Facebook. For example, “Arby’s” doesn’t stand for Roast Beef, either. The R. B. Is for Raffel Brothers.

Yeah, WTF is the deal with that viral post? For those who haven’t seen it it’s something like “How old were you when you found out that the game of TAG stands for Touch and Go.”? I just didn’t have the heart to correct the people passing it around.

Thanks for the correction, but it still doesn’t change the point of my post.

Here is a link to the snopes response, and it was on twitter a while ago BTW.

That said, it is also best to watch the tone here, the claim it is from Old English word, “Tek”


Are not statements that match your and Bear_Nenno level of moral outrage.

It is a bit over the top to correct one wrong bit information by claiming another bit of *uncertain information *is absolute known fact.

Fair enough, but there is nothing to suggest it’s an acronym. Are there any other etymologies of English words dating back to the early 1700s that have an acronym as a source? This smells like the typical urban legend type of backronym like "golf stands for ‘gentlemen only, ladies forbidden.’ or “fuck means ‘fornication under consent of the king.’” At the very least, those claiming a root of “touch and go” need to cite a source.

None that I see. The claim that it is an acronym is clearly not true.

While I now know this was very rare in English until recently, it didn’t raise any flags for me because SPQR, INRI, and other examples in Latin. As English prescriptive grammar and spelling was mostly defined by Latinophiles it is actually surprising that apparently this form developed fairly late within our history.

I definitely think of it as a BBC web site thing (e.g. Bafta).

NATO and NAFTA have always been proper nouns, and changing the capitalization or pronunciation doesn’t change this. Some acronyms are proper nouns and some aren’t, but again this has nothing to do with whether they’re capitalized or pronounced as a single word or letter by letter.

To answer your question, though, and as others have already noted, whether to capitalize acronyms is a matter of style. Some publishers (in particular a few major UK news outlets) have decided that, for most acronyms that are (1) proper nouns, (2) particularly common, and/or (3) pronounced as a single word, only the first letter gets capitalized. For example, here’s the BBC’s house style guide:

As to why BBC and others have decided to do this, well, obviously some bigshot editor there decided that things look better that way. And with no official authority controlling the English language and how it is to be writ, there is no one to stop them from imposing this point of view on everyone who writes for them.

So then follow up question:

Having been in actual NATO (/OTAN) organizations, it was universally written with capitalization. Why do editors demand stylistic changes that are contrary to how the organizations identify themselves? I would think the organization gets to decide how their own name is written.

(And I’m sorry if this is too argumentative for GQ, but if I see an acronym written incorrectly I first assume the writer did not know it was an acronym.)

News agencies do not allow organizations they’re writing about to dictate the publication’s style decisions. That would be surrendering the publication to someone else’s marketing department to hijack English usage for their own benefit.

Because they place a higher value on consistency and uniformity. It’s much easier on writers and editors if they have a simple rule for writing out acronyms rather than having to remember or look up how each organization prefers to style its name. And it’s arguably less jarring on readers if all such names are formatted according to a simple rule rather than willy-nilly. (Don’t get me wrong—the reader will be jarred whenever he switches to reading a publication with a different rule, but at least there will be no surprises within a single publication.)

It should also be taken into consideration that some organizations are themselves inconsistent about how they write their names, some of them don’t care, some of them have preferred spellings that are inconvenient to write (consider the T[sub]E[/sub]X Users Group or Spın̈al Tap), some of them have extremely long names (what we call “Libya” was long officially named The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya), and some of them have names that others find to be politically offensive or otherwise problematic (Republic of Macedonia, Republic of China). Style editors will happily impose their own naming conventions in order to circumvent these problems.