Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The the question

Recently Buffy and I were planning for a 3 hour drive on which I would not be allowed to listen to the radio. Buffy was going to be reading her Donne and the raucous music I listen to would distract her. You know how crazy that NPR interlude music can get. So I went online to search through the NPR podcasts and I came across KPBS radio's A Way With Words hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett. It's an hour a week of the usual language issues that you'd expect to hear on NPR: mostly discussion of etymologies and pet peeves. The episode I downloaded aired 5 May 2007. In this episode Ms Barnette shares a vocabulary tidbit (the synonym of synonym) a guest shares a puzzle, and several callers ask questions. The answers are occasionally confused and even misleading*. One of the lower points comes when a NASA engineer calls to ask about acronyms. His question is fine.

While setting up the problem the caller notes that some acronyms such as FBI CIA IRS and NTSB are always preceded by the definite article while NASA is not. Nor does the article precede UCLA FSU UGA CNN or ABC.

He makes an important observation in noting that NASA, Laser and Radar are "pronounced like words." He looks up the words and at this point, I'm not sure why, he throws up his hands and accepts that the language has stumped him. He says "guess what. They're not even capitalized anymore. But they are acronyms. So that's how I feel. I can't figure it out. The language has conquered me."

Oooh he's so close.

Mr Barrett then rightly makes the distinction between initialisms and acronyms, which the caller has used indiscriminately. And though this distinction could give him a very important half of the solution he makes an odd turn into a terribly clumsy answer. Here I'll provide a snipped transcript:

Barrett: "It didn't sound like you looked at the long form that the short forms came from. I think you'll generally find the rule is is that if the long form of an initialism takes an article (that is the...) as part of its formal name then so does the short form. And that's where you get the distinction between universities. UCLA is not The UCLA, because we don't say...we...we may say the University of California Los Angeles in the long form but it's not The Official formal name of it, not like the...

Barnette (talking over him): "...and it's not 'the Uklah'...'the Uklah'...

Barrett: "Right and it's also's also not an acronym. So that's the general rule. it doesn't always hold but it''s gonna get you there most of the time. ...Acronyms however don't...they almost never take the article even if the longform does."

Mr Barrett's focus on the long form as the determining factor is misguided. It's not just incomplete. It's easily disproved. He appears to catch this himself when he starts using UCLA to support his point. He resorts to making a distinction between "official" definite articles and apparently 'unofficial' ones. (Language Log has dealt with this issue regarding The buckeye school.)

His analysis cannot explain the definite article before FBI even though the official name does not include the definite article. The official name is Federal Bureau of Investigation. The article when used is not capitalized. I'm guessing this is what Barrett meant by a not "official" article. The same is true of the Central Intelligence Agency.

We will grant Mr Barrett's claim that true acronyms typically do not take an article regardless of the official name. We are then left with the question of why some initialisms take an article and some do not. Why do FBI CIA and UN regularly take an article when UCLA UGA and FSU do not? I suggest that the nature of the organization is more important than the name. The initialisms for civic or administrative organizations will take an article regardless of official name. Commercial or private organizations (or organizations that are commonly perceived as such) will not take an article.

Forget about "official" names. For the long form of NBC most people would likely say "The National Broadcasting Company" and for PBS most would say "The Public Broadcasting Service." But no-one says the NBC or the PBS because they are not administrative. They are companies. They are not governmental. They are run by citizens and they control only themselves: they have no jurisdiction outside themselves. The same is true of colleges and universities. I believe this holds even if we consider the PGA the NBA the NFL and the NHL, which are not companies but administrative bodies that have jurisdiction over various corporations and individuals that are not owned by them and do not work for them. (Note that Major League Baseball is not tagged with the initialism and NASCAR is an acronym.)

Now I'm making a connection to the power of "the" in another case. Is this related to the difference between "man" and "THE man"?

*It's unfair to make a claim like this without qualifying or explaining it. The show is not an embarrassing display nor do the hosts lose credibility. As Mr Barrett reminds us in his comment, it is difficult to consider these questions on the fly without overstating or stumbling on a claim. One answer I had in mind (regarding the word "integrous") was logical and accurate. A relevant tangent during the discussion was hard to follow, and I had to listen again before I understood what the claim was, but that could be my fault. I'm kinda...slow.


  1. On the show, I said, "I think you'll generally find the rule is is that if the long form of an initialism takes an article (that is the...) as part of its formal name then so does the short form." Generally is a hedge, not an absolute, as is "general rule" and "doesn't always hold."

    I did overstate the case by saying it would "get you there most of the time," but such are the perils of radio.

    But what I said that was right on target (I'm restating it here) is that acronyms by the strictest definition (that is, initialisms that can be pronounced as words) are far less likely to take the definite article, while initialisms that cannot be pronounced as words are far more likely to take it.

    One of the examples of variability that was cut when we edited the show was that FBI and CIA sometimes take the definite article and sometimes don't. So you get some people who say, “Twenty years ago, I started my career at the CIA as a co-op engineering student” while other people can say, “Having worked for CIA for almost 15 years, I started my career as a cryptographer.” Both those examples are verbatim from the Central Intelligence Agency web site.

    So, the idea of a rule conforming to the administrative or governmental nature of the institution is a post-hoc analysis that doesn't always work. A better rule might have to do with the speaker's familiarity with the entity. For example, you'll find the same thing with dictionary acronyms: Oxford English Dictionary can be OED or the OED; the former is more common among people who use the acronym every day and see it as an entity rather than a reference work.

  2. OSU is officially "The Ohio State University," but I've never heard anyone say "The OSU."

    Not that you're interested in OSU.

  3. Casey -- In an email to Mr Barrett I wrote

    "[A]lthough The Ohio State University 'officially' uses the article in its name, when tagged with the initialism it is not referred to as 'the OSU.'"

    I thought I had included in the post. I guess I forgot.

    I would say that the familiarity analysis is functioning much like the corporate-nature analysis. We'll see if more is offered.

    It's not a simply explained alternation. We start getting into pragmatics and reading into how the organizations are perceived. There are also many ad hoc analyses necessary to account for the many exceptions.

    More in another post perhaps?

  4. Where does the phrase "She's FBI." work into the equation? Is it just a matter of adjectival function that kills the article, and if so, how does that relate to other non-"articlated" instances.

    Is there an effective method to analyse the differences in article use for Central Intelligence Agency and Culinary Institute of Art?

  5. I'll look into the CIA/CIA issue.

    Yes I'd say "She's FBI" loses the article because it's used attributively. Consider phrases like "FBI Agent Veronica Mars..." or "I like reading CIA mysteries."


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