Something I've noticed happening frequently in movies and television- when police are reporting the license plate number of a vehicle, instead of saying the letters on the plate they say words with the letter on the license plate being the first letter in the word.

Why do they do this? Why not just say the letters as they appear?

  • 3
    Because that's what police do in real life.
    – user25738
    Feb 19, 2019 at 22:28
  • I really don't understand the downvotes...
    – papakias
    Feb 20, 2019 at 12:46

2 Answers 2


Some letters (like B,D,T,V,P etc) sound similar and create confusions. This is avoided by using common known (not similar sounding of course) words.

When in person people can see the lip movements and be sure of what the other one is saying. Over the phone one can't see that and may take one of those similar sounding letter to be another and take actions. Often these situations are the serious ones and people don't have the luxury to lose minutes over clearing confusions, hence they use words.

There is in fact a list of words, internationally agreed to be used in such situations: NATO phonetic alphabet

The 26 code words in the NATO phonetic alphabet are assigned to the 26 letters of the English alphabet in alphabetical order as follows: Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.

Also from the same source,

The pronunciation of the digits 3, 4, 5, and 9 differs from standard English – being pronounced tree, fower, fife, and niner. The digit 3 is specified as tree so that it is not pronounced sri; the long pronunciation of 4 (still found in some English dialects) keeps it somewhat distinct from for; 5 is pronounced with a second "f" because the normal pronunciation with a "v" is easily confused with "fire" (a command to shoot); and 9 has an extra syllable to keep it distinct from German nein 'no'.

EDIT: Police forces have a different set of words and is listed underAPCO radiotelephony spelling alphabet which may vary from one police department to another.

  • 1
    I always thought it started with alpha but I guess alfa is more appropriate if they're also using romeo. :)
    – user18935
    Feb 19, 2019 at 9:25
  • Police also use a slightly different phonetic alphabet, David instead of delta for example.
    – user25738
    Feb 19, 2019 at 22:27
  • 1
    @SiXandSeven8ths Yes. Police's phonetics alphabets are different and I found that they can vary with different state police departments also. Anyway edited this into the answers.
    – Spectra
    Feb 20, 2019 at 8:45

Because some of the letters sound the same over their radios. For instance the police might say "C" but the dispatcher hears a "G". Its just a lot easier this way and they have to be 100% perfect when dispatch gives them the update, one letter off and that person might end up behind bars for a little while. Another thing they can do is get better radios where it takes away all static and outside noises, money isn't being spent where it really needs to be.

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