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I have a question about using articles when using an initialism as an adjective to a noun that is mentioned for the first time.

I am studying the/a SAT checklist for the test on Monday.

I want to say that this checklist is one of many checklists but only relevant for the test on Monday. So it feels like I should put "the" in front of SAT, but I recently read that it's better not to put an article in front of initialisms that are used as adjectives. Is an article necessary in the example above? If so, is "the" better than "a" when "SAT checklist" is mentioned for the first time?

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In this answer, I'll use your term (adjective), although I think it would be more proper to say attributive modifier.


When you have an article + adjective + noun sequence, the article relates to the noun, not the adjective. You decide whether to use the article based on whether it makes sense for the noun. In other words, to decide whether to use an article, remove the adjective and see whether an article is required:

  1. *I am studying checklist for the test on Monday.
  2. I am studying a checklist for the test on Monday.
  3. I am studying the checklist for the test on Monday.

Option 1 is ungrammatical. Options 2 and 3 both work, depending on whether you want to use a definite or an indefinite article. So, put your adjective back in:

  1. *I am studying SAT checklist for the test on Monday.
  2. I am studying an SAT checklist for the test on Monday.
  3. I am studying the SAT checklist for the test on Monday.

Once again, option 1 is ungrammatical, and options 2 and 3 both work. Please note that a becomes an, because SAT (pronounced /ˈɛs eɪ ˈtiː/) begins with a vowel sound.


Now for the question of a(n) versus the. Again, this relates to the noun, not the adjective. You decide which article to use based on the noun. If the noun were SAT, we'd probably say the SAT, because it's a specific test; we very rarely or never say an SAT for that reason. But in this case, the noun is checklist! It doesn't matter that SAT is being used as an adjective here--we can ignore it entirely when we're choosing which article to use. So again, let's remove the adjective:

  1. I am studying a checklist for the test on Monday.
  2. I am studying the checklist for the test on Monday.

Since this is the first time you've mentioned the checklist (it's not part of the conceptual space that is shared by the speaker and listener), we mark it as new information with the indefinite article a(n). Option 1 is better. Let's put the adjective back in:

I am studying an SAT checklist for the test on Monday.

And there we have it. Note that once again, a(n) is realized as an before a vowel sound.


In this answer, the * symbol marks a sentence as ungrammatical.

  • A question--if the person I am talking to knows that there are many checklists but also knows the specific checklist I am referring to, is it okay to use the instead of a/an? – jess Sep 11 '13 at 16:42
  • @jess Yes, it is. I think this is a great answer, and I agree with all of it (+1 snailboat! :)) However I personally would actually lean toward using the in this case. An makes perfect sense and I wouldn't disagree with it; snailboat's reasons for choosing it make sense. But since you refer to the test, it sounds as if you're conversing with someone who is already aware of the test (and likely taking it as well). In this case they also are aware of your study materials, and know exactly which checklist you're referring to. If those things hold true, I would use the, not an. :) – WendiKidd Sep 11 '13 at 18:34
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I recently read that it's better not to put an article in front of initialisms that are used as adjectives

I don't know where you read that, but it's bad advice. Consider:

  • He's now on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.
  • The CIA operation in Honduras is now declassifed.
  • Please show the inspector the CMMI documentation.
  • This book details the history of the NBC network.
  • Get ready for the SAT exam by working hard in school.

All of those constructs are perfectly fine. You can search for any of the bolded terms on Google (even in quotes) and see hundreds of thousands of hits.

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If everyone knows what the SAT checklist is, use the. If they don't, use an. (Note that you would say "an SAT" rather than "a SAT"; this has simply to do with whether the next sound is a vowel or not.)

p. s. The word for "initialism" is actually "acronym." :) [Edit: not so; see J.R.'s comment below.]

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    Actually, Bob, SAT is an initialism. When I pronounce "SAT", it sounds like "essay-tee". If it rhymed with cat instead, it would be an acronym. More here. – J.R. Sep 10 '13 at 16:47
  • I stand corrected. I had never heard of an initialism, always used acronym for both, and thought the OP was making up the term! Sorry jess. Thanks JR. – BobRodes Sep 10 '13 at 16:58
  • For all the downvoters, I still stand behind my advice in the first paragraph. – BobRodes Sep 15 '13 at 20:14
  • I agree with the first paragraph, too; that's why I've upvoted this question. We'll have to see if the downvoters reverse their votes now that you've made a correction, but I can't guarantee those folks will come by see the revised answer. It makes me wonder if SE ought to have a mechanism whereby you get a notification any time an answer you've downvoted gets revised, just to give you a chance to revoke it. – J.R. Sep 15 '13 at 23:05
  • Actually, all of the downvoters put in their two cents' worth after I put in my correction. – BobRodes Sep 26 '13 at 12:40

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