Is It “The DoD,” or Just “DoD”?

I have a client who works at the FDA. Except that she would edit that sentence to read, “I have a client who works at FDA.”

The difference? I say “the FDA”; she says “FDA.”

To decide which is better, try this: If you spell out “FDA,” which phrase sounds better?

1. “Works at the Food and Drug Administration.”

2. “Works at Food and Drug Administration.”

It’s not even close. #2 sounds awkward, whereas #1 sounds natural.

And yet, a different colleague tells me this issue isn’t that simple. According to Paul, using or not using the definite article (“the”) isn’t a hard-and-fast rule you can apply across the board. His advice: Use “the” before an initialism (e.g., the DoD, the NSA), but drop the “the” before an acronym (e.g., NASA, NIST).

On its face, this guideline seems reasonable. Yet the more I ponder it, the more I remain unsatisfied. In my view, the distinction isn’t between abbreviations and initialisms; it’s a matter of plain English. Just spell-out the sentence, as we did earlier with the FDA, and the answer will emerge clearly.

That’s because the absence of “the” (“works at Food and Drug Administration”) is distracting. It makes the listener pause because it makes the speaker sound like he’s still learning English.

If only the debate ended here.

But Paul then turned to another expert, John, who pointed to a different trick: Use “the” when you pronounce the letters (e.g., the FBI, pronounced “eff bee igh”; or the FDA, pronounced “eff dee ay”), but drop the “the” when you pronounce the abbreviation (e.g., NASA, pronounced “na suh”; NIST).

Got that? Letters vs. abbreviations.

John concluded by referencing a quintessential quirk of the English language:

“There may be some exceptions to this rule. For example, no one would say, ‘He went to the MIT.’”

Don’t you just love language?

1 comment:

  1. Jon, an idiom that uses "the" for the long name need not use "the" for the shortened name. We would write "She works on Capitol Hill" but She works on the Hill." Admittedly, this is about the full name vs. the nickname--not the full name vs. the initialism. Even so, Google Trends can't even find enough data points for "works for the FDA:,works%20for%20Fda
    I'll bet there are scores of examples like FDA and NATO, where, by convention, the vast majority of Americans use "the" before one form but no "the" before the other.