Thursday, August 04, 2005

And Don't Even Start With the Apostrophe Issue

Most of us know that the Veterans Administration hasn't existed for some time now (it became the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1988), but what about "the VA"?

It's handy that the agency's initials didn't change, but that the is a problem. The Veterans Administration? Yes. That's how people talk. The Veterans Affairs? No.

To review, the general guideline is that we use the with initialisms when both of the following are true:

  • We use the with the spelled-out form. (This is the part at issue here.)
  • The initialism is not an acronym; it is pronounced letter by letter. (This is why the World Health Organization is simply WHO, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is simply OSHA.)

    In "Lapsing Into a Comma," I point out that this means the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms gets a the with its common BATF abbreviation but not with its more common ATF abbreviation. It's "the Bureau ..." but not "the Alcohol ..." (The agency has since become the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but it's still called ATF.)

    Now we have a similar case with VA and, uh, VA. What to do? One answer is to use the abbreviation only adjectivally. As a second-reference noun, use Veterans Affairs or the department. But that can get unwieldy in a story with several such references. Or you could call it VA without the the. The irony, if I may risk a rare use of that term, is that people drop the the in agency references that need the word. Things happen "at EPA" or "at OPM." Sic. Sic. But the tradition of "the VA" dies hard.

    A corollary problem is the first reference to a VA hospital. That second reference works fine, but, if you want to get picky (and of course we do), what used to be a Veterans Administration hospital is a Veterans Affairs hospital only if Department of Veterans Affairs was used earlier. Otherwise, you really should call it a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital.

    Veterans hospital, anyone?


    Felix Salmon said...

    I've always heard WHO pronounced as "double-you aitch oh", not "who". Wouldn't that make it "the WHO"? Or are we mainly trying to avoid inadvertent references to rock groups here?

    Bill said...

    Yes, "the double-you aitch oh," for those who say it that way (guess I haven't spent enough time in epidemiological circles). ROTC and IRA also have competing pronunciations.

    Ellie said...

    That distinction is also pretty handy when it comes to things with the same initials. For instance, at least in the UK, "AA" is Alcoholics Anonymous, but "The AA" is the Automobile Association. So there is a distinction between "joining AA" and "joining the AA".

    When you mention IRA, do you mean the Irish Republican Army or an Individual Retirement Account, or something else? I've only ever heard the Irish Republican Army called "the I.R.A.", in Britain and Northern Ireland (similarly with the Real IRA and the Provisional IRA, etc). But I guess an Individual Retirement Account might be "an I.R.A" or "an Ira"? Is there a difference between initialisms/acronyms for official bodies and those for smaller things like accounts or paper forms?

    Bill said...

    There are misguided people who talk about the money in "my Ira." (I guess there are older Jewish ladies who can say that without being misguided.)

    It would be useful if that pronunciation were standard, to differentiate retirement savings from Irish terrorism, but the fact is that an individual retirement account is an I-R-A.

    Stacy said...

    While we're on the subject of acronym pronunciation here, I was stunned to hear an NPR report the other day about AARP -- said "arp," not "A-A-R-P" like I've always heard it and said it. Anyone know if there's been a shift (a press release demanding "arp," maybe?), or was the reporter just trying to make a new word?

    shmoo said...


    I was first introduced to the acronym with the "arp" pronunciation. Since then, I've most often heard "arp," but sometimes "A-A-R-P."