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The WHO vs. HIV: Acronyms, initialisms and articles

This is the flag of the WHO.

In an article about the new coronavirus, I came across the sentence:

"WHO has praised the response of the Chinese government."

This sentence has a flaw. It is missing the article 'the' and should read: "The WHO...".

This raises the question of when one should use an article (a/an/the) before an acronym or an initialism. First off, let's start with the difference between acronyms and initialisms. Acronyms are abbreviations which are pronounced as if they are words. UEFA (pronounced 'yu-way-fa') is an acronym. So is ETA (the Basque separatist organisation). Abbreviations which, on the other hand, are pronounced as individual letters are initialisms. Examples include CAF (the Confederation of African Football) and IRA (the Irish Republican Army). Now, what about the use of articles? Here are some examples:

UEFA is organising a new league.

ETA was at its strongest in the 1970s and 1980s.

The CAF is organising a new league.

The IRA was at its strongest in the 1970s and 1980s.

You will notice that, for the acronyms, I did not use an article while, for the initialisms, I did. Why? Because acronyms are very often used like names. You can substitute the first two examples above with the names 'Peter' or 'Kodak'. Initialisms, by contrast, are mostly used as if you are saying the full three words instead of the shortened version. You say 'the WHO' in the same way that you would say 'the World Health Organisation'.

Now this is not a hard and fast rule. There are exceptions for acronyms as well as initialisms. Here are a couple of examples:

HIV is spread through unprotected sexual contact. (HIV is an initialism but it is used without an article)

The SWAT team raided the building. (SWAT is an acronym pronounced in the same way that you would swat a fly but we still use an article with it)

Most of the time, you learn when to use an article and when not to simply by reading (and absorbing) more.

Now, some unusual examples:

I saved my data on a CD-ROM. (CD-ROM is a two-parter, with CD being an initialism and ROM being an acronym; as you can see, we use an article with it)

I always LOL when I hear her speak. (LOL—laugh out loud—is a verb not a noun so it obviously does not need an article. When spoken out loud, it is sometimes pronounced as an acronym and sometimes as an initialism. Both are correct, although I don't necessarily encourage people to use internet-speak in real-life conversations).

A final word about educational institutions. Regardless of whether they are acronyms or initialisms, these tend to not take articles. Here are examples of the three main Maltese ones, the University of Malta (initialism: UM), the Institute of Tourism Studies (initialism: ITS) and the Malta College of Arts, Sciences and Technology (acronym: MCAST):

Researchers at UM are making great discoveries.

ITS has revolutionised the tourism industry in Malta.

MCAST offers the best VET (Vocational Education and Training) courses in Malta.

Are you a student at any of these institutions? Would you like your assignments or dissertations proofread by a professional? Email me at You can get up to five pages proofread for free without any commitments or obligations on your part.

As always, happy writing.

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