Performance Perspectives Blog

A skill worth learning: the phonetic alphabet

by | Jul 17, 2015

telephone 4

There are a lot of benefits to spending time in the military, and one that’s not often thought of is the requirement to learn the phonetic alphabet.

What’s the phonetic alphabet?

The phonetic alphabet is essentially reciting the alphabet with words rather than letters. For example, instead of saying a, b, c, you’d say alpha, bravo, Charlie.

Why is there a need for the phonetic alphabet?

Several of the letters in the alphabet are difficult to distinguish from each other; for example b, c, d, e, g, p, t, v, z and m, n. Consequently, it’s often the case where there’s miscommunication. And so, by substituting words (bravo, Charlie, delta, echo, golf, papa, victor, Zulu, and mike, November) for these letters, we can avoid confusion.

When communicating over the phone, and even sometimes in person, folks will shift to a phonetic alphabet to ensure understanding. Individuals who hadn’t been exposed to the military form will substitute their own set of words (e.g., April, bible, carrot). And the problem with these is that some words, themselves, may not be as clear as the speaker intended.

The form used in the U.S. military is one that’s become pretty universal, and is apparently used by NATO and even for pilots.

The advantage of the military form of the phonetic alphabet is that one who has memorized the letter substitutes can easily retrieve them. I spent five years on active duty in the army, and had plenty of opportunities to use them (anytime you spell something it’s done phonetically). Consequently, it’s part of me and will never leave.

Using the phonetic alphabet can be helpful at a variety of times. For example, when telling someone your email address. If I do it using the letters, mine would be dee es pee a you el dee eye en gee [at] ess pee a you el dee eye en gee gee are pee [dot] [com]. There are so many letters that end with “ee” that it’s very easy to confuse one or more (and this often happens). And so, I shift to phonetic spelling: delta sierra papa alpha uniform lima delta India November golf [at] sierra papa alpha uniform lima delta India November golf golf Romeo papa [dot] [com].

Learning the alphabet isn’t that difficult, and finding the letters and their associated words is easy enough to do using Google (e.g.,, but I’ll even save you the trouble:

phonetic alphabet

What does the Phonetic Alphabet have to do with performance?

It has nothing to do with investment performance measurement, but does to our individual performance, because it allows us to be more efficient and  communicate more clearly.

Oh, and the alphabet includes the numbers, all of which are spoken the way we always have (one, two, three) except for nine, which many (at least my generation of military veterans) as “niner.”

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