Did you say Beech Tree or Peachtree? Was that Mr. Gota or Mr. Goda? Is your name spelled S-T-E-V-E-N or S-T-E-P-H-E-N? Pirate Way or Pilot Way?
When you need to spell information like your name, email or home address over the phone –– use the NATO Phonetic Alphabet or the Western Union Phonetic Alphabet. These phonetic alphabets –– also called spelling alphabets –– replace the 26 letters of the English alphabet with 26 code words. A is replaced with Alpha. B is replaced with Bravo. C is replaced with Charlie and so on. Use a spelling alphabet to be accurate, consistent and professional!
"Could you spell your last name, Mr. Shibasaki?"
"S-H-I-B like bravo. A-S like sierra. A-K-I."
In this post, I'm going to show you how to spell your name, email and home or business address over the phone using the NATO and Western Union phonetic alphabets.
You Might Need to Spell Information over the Phone...
When you want to be as accurate as possible
The purpose of a spelling alphabet is to accurately spell information over the radio or phone. Depending on the situation and information, you may need to spell every single letter of every word or just the confusing letters. Consider where mistakes are probable and proceed accordingly.
When a word is difficult to spell
Pittsburgh is one of the most misspelled cities in the United States according ePodunk. Tucson, Cincinnati and Albuquerque rank closely behind. Just because a word is familiar, doesn't mean everyone knows how to spell it.
When you want to spell foreign words and locations
While karaoke and Tokyo are familiar, jānarisuto (journalist) and Takadanobaba are probably not. Visitors to the United States should be comfortable spelling their occupation and contact information over the phone.
When you want to spell scientific and technical terms
While you probably won't need to spell the scientific term for an ice cream headache (sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia), you might need to spell medications or industry terminology to non-industry types.
When you want to spell digits
Phone numbers, license plate numbers, passwords and security codes can be confusing. While ninety-thirteen might be understood for some, nine-zero-one-three is clear for all.
When you want to spell words that aren't commonly understood
When I moved to Georgia, I wasn't familiar with the spelling of street names like Chattahoochee nor cities like Smyrna. When I changed my address with my out-of-state bank, they also weren't familiar with the spelling.
When you want to confirm a spelling
I once spent the day sand sledding in Vietnam with someone who thought my name was Jeb instead of Jeff. We confirm dates and times. We should confirm spellings, too.
When a pronunciation is noticeably different
Regional accents and non-native pronunciations can make it challenging to distinguish words. Auckland or Oakland? Pirate Way or Pilot Way? Spell out the confusing letters.
When names can be spelled more than one way.
Someone could easily misspell Steven with Stephen, Kristina with Christina, Jean with Jeanne, Geoff with Jeff. Don't assume there's only one way to spell a name and don't assume assume others to know your preference.
When English letters have similar sounds
I once had a Japanese student who told me her name was Lina, but she always wrote her name as Rina. Rina or Lina? Barry or Perry? Beech Tree or Peachtree? English letters with similar sounds can be tricky.
- /B/ or /D/
- /B/ or /V/
- /B/ or /P/
- /P/ or /T/
- /D/ or /T/
- /S/ or /F/
- /G/ or /Z/
- /M/ or /N/
- /L/ or /R/
NATO Phonetic Alphabet
The NATO Phonetic Alphabet is also known as the ICAO Spelling Alphabet. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) first developed the spelling alphabet in the 1950s and it was later adopted by NATO. Today, the NATO Phonetic Alphabet is used for radio communication by aviation and maritime industries. It's also used by the military and police, by phone technicians, businesspeople and everyone in between. You can use it too!
In addition to the 26 code words that are assigned to the English letters, the NATO phonetic alphabet also assigns code words to digits. Numbers 3 (tree), 4 (fower), 5 (fife) and 9 (niner) slightly differ from standard English.
Western Union Phonetic Alphabet
The Western Union Phonetic Alphabet predates the NATO Phonetic Alphabet and is ideal for anyone who finds the NATO code words too soldierly.
How to use the Code Words
- Say the letter and refer to its code word by saying, as in _____.
- Say the letter and refer to its code word by saying, like _____.
- Say only the code word, Alfa, bravo, etc.
How do you spell your last name?
"Y-A-M as in Mike. A-D as in Delta. A. Yamada."
What's your home address?
"Two. Eight. Six. Beaver Ruin Road. That's B like Boston. E-A-V like Victor. E-R. Beaver. Ruin's spelled R-U-I-N like New York."
What's your city?
"Smyrna. That's S as in Sugar. M as in Mary. Y-R-N as in New York. A."
What's your email address?
"JohnDoe@gmail.com. That's J-O-H-N like New York. D like Denver. O-E-at-gmail.com."
What's your license plate number?
"Lima. Foxtrot. Yankee. Niner. Fife. Eight. Six" or "L-F like Foxtrot. Y. Nine. Five. Eight. Six."
You just learned how to use the NATO and Western Union Phonetic Alphabets to spell your name, email and address over the phone.
Which alphabet do you prefer, NATO or Western Union? Answer in the Comments below.
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