When should we put "the" in front of acronyms?

People say “the BBC”, but no one says “the NBC”, they just say “NBC”.

Things that are preceded by “the”

  • CIA
  • FBI
  • UN
  • BBC

Things that are **not **preceded by “the”

  • Nato
  • NBC
  • CBS

Is there a general rule, or is it just random?

There is not a rule that you would find written down anywhere, like in a style guide. We might be able to synthesize one, but I’m not sure.

My first instinct would be to use “the” if you would “the” in the fully spelled-out version of the acronym. But I’m not sure that holds true. I think that one would talk about “the North American Treaty Organization.” In the case of NBC and CBS, nobody ever spells it out, like other company names such as IBM (which didn’t take an article in the days when it was commonly spelled out, except maybe when you added the “Corporation” at the end). One talks about a laser, but never *a *scuba; both started out life as acronyms.

I would say it’s just random.

"I remember a senator once asked me. When we talk about “CIA” why we never use the word “the” in front of it. And I asked him, do you put the word “the” in front of “God”? "
From The Good Shepard :stuck_out_tongue:

The acronym “IBM” did occasionally take an article, at least in their company songs.

Here’s a Language Log post that covers everything in the OP and more.

The gist: Initialisms which are “pronounceable as words” (i.e., “acronyms” in the narrow technical sense) generally do not take “the”. Initialisms which are pronounced by “spelling them out” generally take “the” if and only if their unabbreviated versions take “the”. There are certain classes of exceptions (in particular, broadcasting channels and educational institutions generally do not take “the”), and, of course, there is some variation from speaker to speaker, as always.

These aren’t normative rules from on high which you have some responsibility to follow; these are just observations from interested researchers about how people happen to generally speak.

MY WAG is that if the name in its full form is usually preceded by “The” then the acronym will be too.

International Business Machines --> IBM
The British Broadcasting Association --> The BBC
National Aeronautics and Space Administration --> NASA
The Australian Taxation Office --> The barrel of mother**ckers

Although I’m certain there are exceptions to this

But scuba is only an adjective, isn’t it? One speaks of scuba divers and scuba equipment, but not scuba by itself, right?

Well, scuba is an acronym of a noun (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), so in theory, you should be able to use it as a noun.

If so, one would be wrong – NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Only two of the member nations are North American, after all.

I’m a bit iffy on this. Would you really say “In other news, National Aeronautics and Space Administration has launched a new form of wankery” or would you say “In other news, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has launched a new form of wankery”?

NASA policy strictly prohibits wankery of any sort.

I think you meant to put a “the” in one of those sentences, by the way.



I swear that wasn’t there before!

Since when has “Association” begun with a C? Corporation, please.

I think it’s the Oz accent that is throwing everyone off.

I think I have it
If acronym is pronouncable**
Don’t use “the”
Nato, FEMA, Nasa

If it is government related
[INDENT]Use “the”

           Don't use "the"
                          *NBC, CBS, KFC*


Can you guys think of any exceptions?

Your rule might hold for organizations, but we say “the ATM”.

The NBA. The NFL. The NHL. Et cetera.

The BBC is not “government related”.

As I mentioned above, I would correct your version to this:

If acronym is pronouncable
Don’t use “the”
Nato, FEMA, Nasa

If it is an educational institution or primarily a (specific particular) broadcasting channel
[INDENT]Don’t use “the”

           Use "the" (or other appropriate article) if and only if you would do so with the unabbreviated version
                          *KFC, L.A., the IRS, the FBI, the UN, the BBC, the NFL, the NHL, the/an ATM*