The Mystery of NASA

Here’s a New Year puzzler. Nothing to do with space exploration but on the vagaries of the English language.

I’ve been teaching a Polish student recently and was doing some work on the use of articles – a, an and the – when talking about ‘things’.

Some rules are easy to explain – we put a or an in front of singular nouns when talking about something that we’re introducing for the first time, when the thing is one of many etc. The goes in front of plural nouns or when the individual thing is unique or we know specifically what we’re talking about.

We also don’t use an article (often confusing referred to as the zero article) when referring to certain things, including countries, people, concepts, types of things and some geographical features.

For example:

Agreen-skinned man from _ Mars was discussing _ politics as he had _ lunch with thePope on _ Thursday, while sailing a boat across _ Lake Chad in preparation for his crossing of theAtlantic Ocean.

It seems obvious when it’s your own language but believe me it’s not that simple for people learning English for the first time. A lot of my students would probably put the in front of Mars, politics, lunch and Thursday.

(I got confused when trying to learn Portuguese as they put the in front of proper names!)

But what’s got me really puzzled is NASA (and FIFA). Normally, with acronyms for organisations we follow the same pattern as if we spelt the name out in full, e.g. the BBC and the FBI but _ IBM.

So far so good. But can anyone explain why we talk about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) but not the NASA? I thought for a while it was to do with collective nouns but how does that work with the CIA and the RAF.

Answers on a postcard please…

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2 responses to “The Mystery of NASA”

  1. Graham Stanley says :

    I believe the difference is that you pronounce NASA and FIFA as words but you pronounce each letter of ‘the CIA’ and ‘the BBC’ – does that hold up?

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