Avoiding Miscommunication: A Brief Guide to Using the NATO Phonetic Alphabet

Representation of alphabet.


Miscommunication can arise in a variety of situations, such as when talking on the phone in an area with bad reception or with a lot of background noise. This is especially frustrating if you’re trying to communicate an exact term, such as a name or a street address.

Using the NATO phonetic alphabet allows you to avoid miscommunication issues, by helping you spell out words in a way that is intelligible regardless of the situation. This can be valuable for everything from talking with tech support, to contacting emergency services. In fact, it’s so effective that there have been calls for using the NATO alphabet among medical professionals, where accurate communication can be a matter of life and death.

The following guide will explain to you how the NATO alphabet works, and how to use it. The concept behind it is very simple, so you will be able to implement it almost immediately and with good results.


The concept

The idea behind the NATO alphabet is very simple: you replace the letter you want to say with a word that starts with the same letter. For example:

  • B  is replaced by BRAVO
  • G  is replaced by GOLF
  • O  is replaced by OSCAR

While learning the actual NATO alphabet can be useful, the most important thing is to remember how the different letters are represented. By simply remembering this one principle, you can enjoy most of the benefits of the phonetic alphabet, without much effort on your part. Furthermore, this principle is useful in locations where people use different variants of the phonetic alphabet (such as the LAPD radio alphabet), as they all rely on the same principle.


The NATO phonetic alphabet

As you just saw, understanding the principle behind the alphabet allows you to enjoy most of its benefits, without having to learn the alphabet itself. However, you can still benefit from learning the alphabet, for two reasons. First, because it’s standardized and widely used, meaning that a lot more people are likely to recognize and understand it. Second, because the words in the alphabet were chosen based on extensive testing, as they ensure mutual intelligibility between speakers from different linguistic backgrounds.

The image below contains the NATO phonetic alphabet:

Chart containing all the letters in English, together with their corresponding code-word in the NATO phonetic alphabet (including pronunciation).


If you want to say a number, you simply say the whole word, with a few minor variations in pronunciation in some cases (compared to ‘regular’ English):

Chart containing numbers, together with their corresponding code-word in the NATO phonetic alphabet (including pronunciation).


The punctuation marks are referred to by name with a few exception: a hyphen (-) is referred to as a dash, and a period (.) is referred to as a stop, while a decimal point is referred to as a point or as a decimal.

(A full table, containing both the letters and the numbers is available: as an image and as a PDF if you’re interested.)


Memorizing the alphabet

If you decide you want to learn the NATO alphabet, you can do it by using flashcards or a memorization software (such as Anki). You could also memorize the code words in order, preferably using a rhythm or a tune that makes them easier for you to remember.

Once you can roughly recall all the code words, start practicing by spelling out different words using the alphabet. These words can be anything you want: from random items you encounter, to the addresses of streets you pass by. If you want, you can also try spelling out random strings, such as those on license plates.


Other things to keep in mind

There are a few other things you should remember when using the alphabet, in order to ensure that you’re using it effectively:

  • Make sure to say the full word you are spelling out, before and after spelling it. This will help the other person understand what you are saying.
  • Make sure the person you’re talking to knows that you are spelling out a word and understands how you are doing it. If they’re not familiar with the concept of the phonetic alphabet, you can use the following pattern when spelling out words: “N as in November, O as in Oscar…”
  • When improvising, avoid words which can be easily confused with other words due to a similar-sounding initial letter (e.g. ban/pan), or where it’s difficult to isolate the initial letter (e.g. the ‘b’ in ‘brain’, which is pronounced together with the ‘r’).


Summary and conclusions

  • There is often miscommunication when trying to spell things out over the phone; this can be frustrating in some cases, and outright dangerous in others (for example, when telling emergency services your address).
  • To solve this, you can use the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, in order to spell out words.
  • If you don’t remember the official alphabet, you can improvise by using words where the first letter in the word corresponds to the letter you are trying to say.
  • Make sure to state the full word before and after spelling it out, and to let the listener know that you are going to spell it out using the phonetic alphabet.
  • If you’re improvising, avoid using words where the sound of the first letter is difficult to identify. The advantage of the official alphabet is that the words there were picked after extensive testing, in order to ensure intelligibility.