Spelling out words

Word-spelling alphabets

When speaking on the phone, I often have to spell out words, my name, email address or some unpronounceable word.  Making yourself heard on your mobile phone in a noisy area can be particularly challenging.

Some letters sound alike, for instance M & N, or F & S.  I may be familiar with the words.  Yet, the person listening on the other end may have no idea which letter I mean. It’s all too easy to confuse or misinterpret words.

Modern technology adds to the confusion. Increasingly, we rely on complicated reference numbers and passwords which use letters and numbers. A word-spelling alphabet can come to our rescue.   

A good spelling alphabet will help your listener to identify the spelling of difficult or little-known words and names. This is achieved by assigning a word to each character so that the letter’s name begins with the letter itself. For instance, “A Alpha”. 

These alphabets are also known as telephone, radio or phonetic alphabets. Many so-called phonetic alphabets also contain the numerals from 0 to 9.  They enable the easy transmission of precise alpha-numeric information, such as map grids or car registration numbers. These alphabets are useful verbal tools which make oral radio and telecommunication much easier.

Alpha Bravo Charlie

Spelling alphabets are at least as old as radio communications. The first ones came into use shortly after the beginning of the 20th century.

The NATO alphabet, “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie … X-Ray, Yankee, Zulu” became effective in 1956. Some years later, it became the established universal spelling alphabet for all military, civilian and amateur radio communication.

Names and wei­rd words

All organisations and professions develop their own obscure buzzwords ­and baffling terminology. Business jargon can be convenient for use in the workplace.  However, it can confuse the wider public.  It runs the risk of causing misunderstanding.  So, always try to use plain language. It helps to clarify your message.

Even so, there are times you cannot avoid unusual words that are difficult to understand. ­­ The matter becomes worse when two people from different countries with markedly different accents converse.

At times, you may have no alternative but to use unfamiliar professional jargon. A good spelling alphabet can come to your rescue. Most journalists use one.  So too do the police.

Before using a spelling alphabet, make sure the person you are talking to understands what you are about to do. If they are unfamiliar with spelling alphabets, try this formulation:  “A as in Alpha, B as in Bravo…”.  Most people will understand intuitively.

When you speak over the telephone, there is none better than the internationally accepted NATO Phonetic Alphabet. 

The NATO phonetic alphabet­­­

Nato chart
Based on chart by Emcrit


The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has formally adopted the NATO phonetic alphabet.

This word-spelling alphabet was developed in the 1950s to be intelligible over poor-quality radios to all NATO allies, especially in the heat of battle. It replaced other earlier radio alphabets and is widely used between aircrew and traffic controllers.

While people commonly describe the alphabet as “phonetic”, it actually serves to identify the spelling rather than pronunciation of words. ­

Words are assigned to each letter of the English alphabet.   To limit the risk of confusion, each codeword is as distinctive as possible. Alpha, Bravo and Charlie, for instance, don’t look the same, don’t sound the same and don’t mean the same. 

The words in the NATO alphabet were chosen after extensive testing.  Being easy to pronounce and recognise they ensure accurate communication between speakers regardless of their native language. 

Without these carefully chosen words some characters would be difficult to distinguish.  D & T and B & P are typical examples. But, avoid making up your own words. “B-bobby” and “P-poppy” confuse rather than clarify. So, why not use the word alphabet and learn it by heart?

Some numbers can also be easily confused, for instance 5 and 9.  The NATO alphabet replaces each of these digits with a distinct alternative.  “Five” is pronounced as “fife” to distinguish it better from “nine”.  “Nine” becomes “niner” which is distinct from “five” and cannot be confused with the German word “nein”.

Today the business and telecommunications across Europe and North America widely adopt this word-spelling alphabet. Reporters make use of it in their spoken news dispatches.  The police use it to spell out names and car numbers. It could enable you to help a journalist write a clearer and more accurate story about your business.

Spelling or speaking? 

Strictly speaking, the term “phonetic” is a misnomer for a “word-spelling” alphabet.  

Linguists, speech therapists and language teachers use a phonetic alphabet to clarify pronunciation and word sounds that people speak. You can find a typical phonetic alphabet in the front pages of most dictionaries. These alphabets adopt symbols to match the unique sound of each consonant and vowel sound which appears in the dictionary.

So, when it comes to spelling out words, most people will better understand what you mean if you recommend a “word-spelling” alphabet. 

The NATO Phonetic Alphabet is sometimes wrongly called the “International Phonetic Alphabet” (IPA). They are entirely different. The former is a spelling alphabet. The IPA is a speaking alphabet. It uses symbols to represent the standard accent spoken in the south of England.  We call this Received Pronunciation, the Queen’s English or, simply, speaking posh.