NASA or Nasa? NATO or Nato? Dealing with acronyms

I almost always use upper case when I am using obvious acronyms, so it is WHO, NASA, NATO, AIDS, and so on. But I have noticed in reading news articles from some but not all sources that certain acronyms are written as if they are just nouns, as in the case of Nato and Nasa. For example, this article from the Guardian refers to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as Noaa and to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science as Vims. Similarly, this article from the BBC refers to Nasa. But the BBC, WHO, NFL, and the NBA are always kept as upper case.

Kevin Drum was also puzzled by this variance in the context of how different media outlets referred to the virus causing the pandemic. It was written as COVID-19, Covid-19, or covid-19 and upon investigating further found that of 15 major American news outlets, the score is 9-6 in favor of keeping it as all caps.

What about sometimes capitalizing just the first letter of the acronym?

In case you’re wondering, British style is to use uppercase for acronyms that are pronounced as separate letters when spoken but lowercase for acronyms that are pronounced as words when spoken. So NASA is Nasa and COVID is Covid, while FBI is FBI and USA is USA.

So that explains it. I myself think it preferable to always capitalize all the letters in an acronym, whether they can be spoken as a word or not. Seeing Nasa and Nato is jarring.

According to Merriam-Webster, an acronym is “a word (such as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term.” Even though all three acronyms given as examples can be spoken of as words, just the first one is capitalized. This may be because the other two have long since become so common that many people may not even recognize that they are acronyms in which each letter stands for a word. The acronym has transitioned into a regular word.

What about covid-19? It is the identifier for the disease caused by a particular virus though the virus is also sometimes referred to by the same label. Should we treat it as an acronym for COronoVIrus Disease, in which case I should be using COVID, or is it just a new word? Merriam-Webster refers to Covid as a noun, unlike for NASA that it refers to as an abbreviation, suggesting that it should be treated as a word.

If it is the name given to a disease, then we should perhaps just refer to it entirely in lower case as covid-19, like we do with all other diseases that are not named after people, such as measles or diphtheria.

Clearly I have way too much time on my hands to be thinking about things like this …


  1. Kimpatsu1001 says

    WHO s not an acronym, it’s an initialism. Acronyms spell pronounceable words (SCUBA, NASA), whereas initialisms have to be pronounced individually (F-B-I, W-H-O).

  2. blf says

    I don’t know about that being “British style”, but it certainly is the Grauniad’s own documented style, Guardian and Observer style guide: A:

    abbreviations and acronyms
    Do not use full points in abbreviations, or spaces between initials, including those in proper names: IMF, mph, eg, 4am, M&S, No 10, AN Wilson, WH Smith, etc.

    Use all capitals if an abbreviation is pronounced as the individual letters (an initialism): BBC, CEO, US, VAT, etc; if it is an acronym (pronounced as a word) spell out with initial capital, eg Nasa, Nato, Unicef, unless it can be considered to have entered the language as an everyday word, such as awol, laser and, more recently, asbo, pin number and sim card. Note that pdf and plc are lowercase.


    I myself mostly follow this advice, albeit not-so-much on “pin number”, “sim card”, or “pdf”; and with the typesetting tweak of using a non-breaking-space (HTML:  ) to avoid potentially confusing or “stylistically awkward” line breaks (newlines), such as after “Mr” or in quantities (such as 10m people). I consider Covid-19 a proper noun / name pronounced as a word, and hence write it as shown.

  3. says


    This is mostly a holdover from the Associated Press Style book where the rule is:

    If the reader sounds each letter when reading the name, then print the acronym in all caps; i.e. FBI and CIA.

    If the reader vocalizes the acronym as a word; i.e. laser or scuba, then uppercase the first letter only if it is a proper noun such as Nato or Nasa.



  4. says

    Some acronyms have become words unto themselves (radar, laser) and even names (xerox) are used in lowercase, but until they are, I would always use uppercase. I only use lowercase for a name if it’s to demean and insult an individual or group (e.g. trump, marines) especially when they’re self-important.

    I hadn’t noticed European news doing this. I looked, expecting NASCAR (aka NASCRASH) to be an exception of “spoken as a word but capitalized”, but even that one is typed lowercase.

    My personal rule for writing is avoid ambiguity. Always using uppercase acronyms helps, and is why I still use double spaces after sentences. This example isn’t an acronym, but I would write “six flats of 24” to describe flats of beer or pop. The word is for how many flats, the digits for what it is.

  5. blf says

    Amusingly, the use of flat in “six flats of 24” is confusing, if not ambiguous: Confusing, as I had no idea what was meant by “flat” (and am still a bit vague), possibly to the ambiguity: “Flat” means “apartment” (especially a single-story apartment) in some parts of Europe, and with that context, “six flats of 24” is baffling. (Oh, and by the way, 24 what — Tardises?) Potentially, “pop” is also confusing, as that term is used mostly(?) in parts of N.America; elsewhere, terms include “soda”, “soft”, and very probably others. “Beer”, at least, is widely understood!

  6. says

    I am unstable here because I omit capitalization to show disrespect and a couple of other areas where my capitalizing is in flux. As a result sometimes I don’t capitalize things I should. I need to find some consistency.

  7. mnb0 says

    “I almost always use upper case when I am using obvious acronyms”
    You may overestimate yourself. Do you write GULAG? SPETZNAZ or SpetzNaz? The Soviets were very good at creating new words via acronyms. There also are acronyms that actually are names. The city called Odessa is clear; do you use ODESSA (Organisation der ehemaligen/entlassenen SS-Angehörigen) or perhaps OdeSSA? BASIC? GeStaPo or GESTAPO? You already don’t use LASER and TASER.

    “Seeing Nasa and Nato is jarring.”
    Most Dutchies, including me, disagree (in Dutch the second word would be Navo, btw).
    Dutch style largely is the same as British style. An interesting example, mentioned by English Wikipedia, is the football club (what you Americans erroneously call soccer) NAC, pronounced with the a of large. It means Noad Advendo Combination; or would you prefer to write NOAD ADVENDO Combination? The first two also are acronyms …..

  8. Mano Singham says

    kimpatsu1001 @#1,

    According to Merriam-Webster:

    What is the difference between the words acronym and initialism?

    Acronym is a fairly recent word, dating from the 1940s, although acronyms existed long before we gave them that name. The term was preceded in English by the word initialism, meaning an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of a phrase, and which has been in use since the late 19th century.

    Some people feel strongly that acronym should only be used for terms like NATO, which is pronounced as a single word, and that initialism should be used if the individual letters are all pronounced distinctly, as with FBI. Our research shows that acronym is commonly used to refer to both types of abbreviations.

  9. Mano Singham says

    blf @#2 and #5,

    As with so many things involving language, rigid rules often break down and one has to go with the flow about what feels and sounds right and what has become customary.

  10. says

    blf (#5) --

    Flat (a case of cans) wasn’t the point, it was using numbers and numerals for separate purposes. One could say “four 100 metre runners” to talk about a relay team.

    Flat, pop and two-four are Canadian terms.

  11. Ridana says

    Another difference between words like NATO and radar is that the first is formed from a title (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) while radar (radio detecting and ranging) is formed from ordinary words that still would not be capitalized if spelled out.

    Both pop and soda are short for soda pop. Some regions choose the first word, others the second.

    When reading in my head, I still pronounce WHO and VAT as their lower case words (unless “the” precedes WHO). 🙂 Btw, VAT, to me, should be written vat, though I don’t live in a place that regularly uses the term. I guess I could maybe see it being capitalized due to its being a legal term of sorts, though I’d never write Sales Tax or Income Tax.

  12. OverlappingMagisteria says

    Since it stands for “Coronavirus Disease”, I’m going with “CoviD” although “CoViD” is also acceptable. 🙂

  13. publicola says

    This is how language evolves. It seems,(and I’m not a linguist by any means), that the vulgar usage drives the evolutionary process in language, so that terms like “his wanting to” and “to separate” become “him wanting to” and “to separate out”. By the way, soda was always called “tonic” in Boston.

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