'the newspaper' and more on the written word

Tonight (22:00/10pm) people in the UK (and maybe abroad?) will be able to hear a new instal(l)ment of The Verb "Radio 3's cabaret of the word". [It's downloadable for the next 7 days.]  I was invited to talk about a piece I'd written a few months ago about American attitudes to dictionaries and, by extension, the written word. And it was a lovely time. The other guests were Nathaniel Mann (with his collaborator, violinist Daniel Merrill) and Nicholson Baker, whose writing I've long admired (and who was contributing over the phone from Maine; as a friend of mine pointed out, I was on the phone with the inventor of phone sex). The host, Ian McMillan, is not only a great radio host and performer, but also a great actual host, as were the rest of the staff there. Who knew we'd get apples before and cake after?

But, of course, one prepares for such events and then one is a bit disappointed when one misses the opportunities to say every fascinating (to oneself, at least) thing that one's thought of. In particular, that I've thought of. So, I'm typing this on the train back from the recording. L'esprit de railway.

The original essay and the radio piece both make a big thing out of what may be a very little thing: some evidence of differences in attitude to the written word in the US and UK. My contention is that Americans like written authorities, while the British tend not to turn to the written word as authority as much. On the program(me) I talk about dictionaries, the Bible, supreme courts, and constitutions, as I did in the original essay. In the course of it, I get a Winston Churchill quotation wrong (he actually said: "The English never draw a line without blurring it.") and miss the opportunity to point out a couple of things I had enjoyed discovering this week. So I'll tell you about them now.

The Supreme Court strikes (some dictionaries) again!
On the topic of U.S. Supreme Court use of dictionaries, a particular example of it arose this week. The case, Bond v. United States, involved the question of whether a wife putting caustic powders on her husband's pregnant lover's doorknobs could be prosecutable under the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act. The Court unanimously said 'no', and the opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts, cites seven different dictionaries — from Johnson's to the 3rd edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (why not the 4th or the 5th?) — in defining weapon and treaty. The two cited definitions of weapon define them as instruments of combat, and Roberts then shifts from dictionary evidence to evidently out-of-his-hat proclamations about "natural parlance", i.e. 'But no speaker in natural parlance would describe Bond's feud-driven act of spreading irritating chemicals on Haynes's door knob and mailbox as "combat."' American Heritage (4th edn) defines combat as 'To oppose in battle; fight against.'. Was Bond fighting against Haynes? Does this mean that, say, the Sarin was not a chemical weapon when it was used in a Tokyo train because the passengers weren't in a battle? Heck, does it mean that a gun used in domestic violence is not a weapon? We can see that court usage of dictionary definitions is a bit wobbly. Or scary, if you prefer. I'm not saying that the use of a rash-inducing caustic powder in a domestic dispute should be subject to international treaties about chemical weapons. But I am saying that if you're going to use a dictionary to support your opinion, you shouldn't hop back and forth between using it and ignoring it. And you probably shouldn't be using it that much at all. (By the way, Slate magazine hails the Chief Justice's "comic stylings" in this case. Yes, Americans can do irony.)

the newspaper?
While thinking further about how we talk about the dictionary even though there are many dictionaries, I wondered about use of the newspaper.  People say things like I read the newspaper every day or I read about that in the newspaper. But, of course, it's a particular newspaper title that they read every day, and it was a particular issue of a particular title that they read a particular fact in. (There's a reason why newspaper is the word that I use to teach first-year students about polysemy.) Saying the newspaper in these contexts, like when people say the dictionary, gives the impression that it's immaterial whether there is more than one possible newspaper that you could be referring to, since it is the news they're telling you. (In contrast, people don't talk generically about how to read the book or say that they read a fact in the book, unless it's clear from context which book they're talking about.) I wondered: do we see a difference in this use of the in AmE and BrE?  Well, I wouldn't be feeling the need to tell you about it if we didn't.

Using the Corpus of Global Web-Based English again, I looked at various newspaper phrases. British websites were about as apt as the American to have the phrases read a newspaper and read in a newspaper. But when we put a the in there, the scale(s) tip(s) to the American, with 106 American instances of read the newspaper to 45 British ones, and 23 American read in the newspaper to 9 British.  (I also didn't get to note that fellow-guest Nicholson Baker has an essay called 'Reading the paper' about newspaper-reading [in his case the New York Times] in his collection The Way the World Works.) This difference is probably much to do with the fact that American newspapers are meant to be 'objective' and 'impartial', while British ones wear their political positions more obviously.  If one believes that all the news is impartially reported in all the newspapers, then, the thinking might go, the news in the papers is interchangeable. (The fact that any news above the local level is likely to be coming from a wire service makes this almost true in some cases.) The American ideal of impartial print media (and until Fox News, broadcast media were held to the same standards) seems tied up with the value of the printed word in American culture.

Iain in the comments mentions 'in the papers" (note: I did newspaper rather than  paper because of the ambiguity of the latter--both are used in AmE & BrE). The plural there acknowledges that there is not a single paper, so more use of the plural would go along with the claim I'm making above (which, I must underscore, is a thought-experiment, like the original dictionary piece. I'm seeing how far I can go with it. And then I might go somewhere else with it!).  Looking at GloBWE again, each country (US, CA, UK, IE, AU, NZ) has only one instance of read it in the newspapers.  But for read the newspapers there are 33 US and 63 UK examples, making it reasonably more frequent in BrE. So the plural form doesn't undermine the thought-experiment.  But keep experimenting!


  1. I'm Irish and I would almost always say "I read it in the paper", not "a paper". Or maybe "in one of the papers". And I don't know if the plural forms interest you, but we have a radio slot on RTÉ Radio 1 in Ireland called "It Says in the Papers", an overview of the press. What would you call the same thing in the US?

  2. I like your suggestion that the difference is partly because "American newspapers are meant to* be 'objective' and 'impartial'" compared to British ones. I wonder if it's also because the USA is so big and has many one-newspaper towns, where "the newspaper" would be simply factual.

    *BrE usage of "meant to" -- have you covered this? I would say "supposedly" or "nominally" or something like that.

  3. Like Iain, I would say in the paper, not in the newspaper.

    However, it's something I used to say. Nowadays' I'd say I read it in the Guardian. (How did you guess?)

    The days are long gone when most of us had a regular morning newspaper delivered to our home, which we would read at odd intervals though the day for example, at breakfast, on the way to work, etc. In my family there were two the papers: for my father it was the Telegraph, for my mother the Express.

    Because we habitually spoke of our individual concrete the paper which was an actual paper, the natural way to speak of the broad abstraction of 'the current press' or 'today's press' was to use the same phrase by extension.

    Even then, there was a rival arena on the news — the actual radio, and later television news, extended to the broad abstraction of 'the contents of today's broadcast news'.

    Nowadays, the concrete sense of in the paper or on the news is no longer part of the culture. So we don't use either phrase in an abstract extended sense. We're more likely to say in the papers, in the media, in the news media. Often we say in the news, but that tends to mean 'considered newsworthy and reported quite widely'.

    I believe I used to make a distinction: If I wasn't entirely sure I believed it, I could say I read it in the paper. If I meant 'it has become public knowledge' I'd say It's in the papers. This might be no stronger than taking the truth on trust for the time being. But for some It's in the papers could be the same sort of 'proo'f as It's in the dictionary

  4. Sorry to squick you, but my (future) wife and I were engaging in phone sex as long ago as 1979.

  5. Iain: Thanks for that: I'll add a bit about the plural to the blog post, since I'd rather it went up there!

    Jan: I'd started to write about the locality of papers too, trying to assert that it's pretty clear which paper you're reading in most places. But then I remembered that we only needed to look back to my childhood when Rochester NY had two dailies, so I thought that point might be hard to support. But the difference in 'localness' of papers is huge and really affects how people interact with their papers and how the papers are structured.

    Iain and David: it would be normal to say 'in the paper' in the US too, but I decided not to search for that because it's ambiguous and I'd have to sort out cases where 'the paper' was, say, an academic paper that had just been mentioned or a piece of paper that had been handed to someone. My 3G connection to the internet was just not good enough for much of the trip to support that! (And I was supposed to be marking/grading.)

    John: TMI.

  6. And, of course, I have to emphasize. I'm not saying one group of people says something and the other doesn't. I'm saying that one group seems to use one turn of phrase more than another and more than they use another turn of phrase. All of these expressions are both possible and used.

  7. Another difference in the use of 'the' between British and American which has interested me is 'in hospital' (British) vs 'in the hospital' (American) to mean 'having been admitted to hospital' in both cases.

    'In the hospital' to a British person would imply just in the physical hospital building such as visiting someone or waiting for an outpatient appointment where 'in hospital' means you have been admitted and are now an in-patient.

    I had a discussion with an American about this who complained about British people dropping words and using 'in the hospital' as an example, but to me it kind of feels like 'in hospital' is nearly like a Latin phrase such as 'in vitro' or 'in situ', that it describing a state of being somewhat, that the person is in the state of having been hospitalised.

    No wish to derail away from newspapers, just another example of different uses of 'the'.

  8. Jay: there are many discussions of other 'the's on the blog. If you click on the 'determiners' label in the margin you'll get to them, but using the search box works too to get you to the hospital one:

  9. To a lesser extent, newspaper is ambiguous between physical object and function. Well, perhaps not so much now, but it used to be.

    The fish and chip shops of my youth had stopped serving the food directly wrapped in newspaper. There must have been a few shops left doing this, because I remember hearing that it had just been made illegal. There was a special greaseproof-paper bag for the food and a single sheet of greaseproof covering it. But then, without exception, they would wrap it in a piece of newspaper to keep it warm.

    More generally, we used newspaper for all sorts of bulking, drying and insulation. Paper chains and decorations had been unobtainable during the War, so people were used to substitutes made of newspaper and many would still make them to save money. At least one village had a traditional mummers' play (the one where Saint George slays the Turkey Knight, who is brought back to life by the Doctor) where the consumes were made of strips of newspaper.

    All this was the uncountable mass noun. As a countable noun with plural newspapers, I only remember two uses:
    • the physical object: Can I have a look at your newspaper?
    • the institution: The Telegraph is a right-wing newspaper.

    I'm not sure anybody ever used it in that sense of 'personal quasi-unique source of up-to-date information'. At any rate, I would not say
    * It's in the newspaper
    * I read it in the newspaper

    nor in a third example I've remembered
    We could say
    He got his name in the paper 'He stopped being entirely private, if only for a short while'
    But not
    * He got his name in the newspaper

  10. American by birth, naturalised British (and with an Australian husband), so my experience may not extend very far generally.

    My husband and I read different newspapers, and I stroll to the newsagent's every morning to get "the papers".

    I might say such-and-such a story was "in the paper", or "in the X" where X is the newspaper's title. I've been trying to figure out when I would use which phrase.

    "In the paper" -- The only choice when speaking to someone who knows me well enough to know which paper I read.

    "In the Telegraph" (the one I read) -- My usual choice for forums, etc. where people aren't likely to know or guess my choice of paper and I don't care whether they know it.

    "In the paper" followed by a definite reference to the Telegraph -- For forums, etc. if I want to make the point that the Telegraph is my regular paper and I'm not just quoting something random I found on the internet.

    "In the..." some other title (e.g. in the Mirror, in the Independent) -- If I'm quoting from any other newspaper.

    So I seem to use "in the paper" to refer to my paper, the one I read regularly.

    In the plural, though, "in the papers" would mean in the news more generally, or just being publicly talked about. Or even "all over the papers" if it's a really big story.

  11. When I read the "paper" nowadays, I am really reading it online only. I don't subscribe to my local paper because it's pretty mediocre--and behind a paywall to boot--just to the Washington Post. I find that mostly a conversation often doesn't refer to any newspaper at all, but rather it sounds like this: "I read this on-line." Only if someone asks where to find an article would I specify where to look it up, as in "on the Post's website." I wonder if use of the word "paper" is going away . . .

    Atlanta, Georgia

    P.S. I listened to Lynneguist's radio broadcast -- sounded terrific!

  12. I'd say "My father was quoted in the paper" (which he was, <a href="http://fw.to/wYevohi>here</a>), or "In the Telegraph" (or more likely, being me, "In the Torygraph"), but not "in the newspaper".

    Headphones broken so can't listen to your piece yet - I will as soon as I have replaced them, arguably tomorrow.

  13. I (Cdn) would say 'I read in . Often, that means using the, as it is part of the publication title (The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, The [Toronto] Star). If I can't recall where, I'm just likely to say 'I read recently' or 'In a recent study…' without attribution, as chances are high that it was online, even if was published in a traditional newspaper.

    I also like reading Dahlia Lithwick of Slate and enjoy her sense of humour/irony; I do have to note, however, that she is Canadian, not American :).

  14. I'm not sure whether this is a digression or not, but I get the impression that people in the US respect newspapers, the press and journalists rather more than we do. This could be affecting usage.

    As examples of this, US films feature journalists as heroes - e.g. All the Presidents' Men, Citizen Kane and Superman's alter ego - in a way that is quite simply unlikely here. We may make exceptions for individuals, but we just don't, in general, admire them. More typical of general UK attitudes towards people involved in news media was the television comedy series a few years ago called 'Drop the Dead Donkey'.

    So we might simply have less cause to speak of 'the newspaper' to denote a source which is generally respected, irrespective of to which one we are referring.

  15. @Dru: In American culture, there has traditionally been a distinction between serious/respectable/impartial journalism and trashy/tabloid journalism. Reporting for a serious paper is considered a respectable profession. I doubt the distinction between the types of publications was ever as sharp as we liked to believe, but it has certainly seemed to become blurred in recent years---with the advent of twenty-four hour (and frequently partisan) news channels, the growth of electronic media, and the decline of traditional newspapers. However, there are still publications that clearly lie on one or the other side of the dividing line (The New York Times versus the New York Post, for example).

    The standard American perception of British newspapers is that they are all pretty trashy by American standards.

  16. Lynne --

    For as long as I've been reading your separated by a common language blog I've been impressed by your talent, as an American living in Britain, for managing to remain current about American cultural attitudes and assumptions. It can't be easy!

    Then I read your claim "that American newspapers are meant to be 'objective' and 'impartial', while British ones wear their political positions more obviously."

    At which point I was thrown into a time capsule and transported back to 1979.

    Certainly Americans once viewed newspapers this way -- but still? The Philadelphia Inquirer has been sold six times over the last decade and recently went for a measly $88 million. Last year Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million -- likely more than it was worth. A few years ago the New York Times might have gone bankrupt had it not received a loan from none other than Mexican telecom billionaire Carlos Slim. Lesser newspapers than these have either been shuttered or now publish strictly online. Meanwhile Fox News has shown its contempt for the kind of objective and impartial reporting you mention by referring to its adherents as the "lamestream media."

    Indeed, the success of Fox News's blatantly partisan reporting has spawned imitators in the U.S. of all political stripes. Meanwhile I routinely encounter conservatives in the comments sections of various progressive online magazines (e.g., TheAtlantic.com, NewRepublic.com, Slate.com) who refer to the paper I read, the New York Times, as "a liberal rag" they wouldn't dream of trusting for their news.

    My evidence is anecdotal, to be sure. But insofar as Americans still read newspapers (and is there any doubt that very few below the age of 40 do so?) I doubt that many continue to treasure them as objective or impartial.

    My view from the cheap seats.

  17. @Brett: The standard American perception of British newspapers is that they are all pretty trashy by American standards.

    And vice versa. And equally only somewhat accurate, there being trash and not-quite-such-trash on both sides (I cannot bring myself to describe any newspaper as treasure).

  18. One British newspaper that really should be treasured, whether or not you agree with its politics, is the world's only English language socialist daily, the 'Morning Star'. £1 from any newsagent, six days a week. It's a miracle that it continues to exist at all, let alone flourish. But it does, and it is a good paper, well worth reading for its news reporting and its different perspective on things.
    (Do genuine heartfelt endorsements count as spam? I'll leave Lynne to decide.)

  19. Maybe because the New York Times has marketed itself as an authority, but I might say "I read it in the Times."

    But the local paper would be "the paper" unless specificity was required, in which case, I'd say "I read it in the T-U," that being the Albany (NY) Times Union.

  20. @Grhm: Heart-felt socialist though I might be, why should I trust the Morning Star's perspective on things any more than any of the others? (Sorry Lynne, this is getting dangerously political.)

  21. I didn't say The Morning Star was more trustworthy, just that it had a different perspective from all the other daily papers. That is a valuable thing when the mainstream, commercial press all blandly agree with each other (on, for example, events in Ukraine).
    Its independent line is guaranteed by the fact that it is owned by its readers (or more precisely by a readers' co-operative, 'The People's Press Printing Society'). It also carries very little commercial advertising, so the editor is unafraid of offending big business interests and he answers not to an opinionated billionaire proprietor but to the paper's actual readership.
    It's a great model for how a paper should operate, and there is surely room for similar, genuinely independent, reader-owned papers in other parts of the political spectrum.
    This really is starting to sound like an advert, so I'll stop.

  22. "reading a newspaper" is more general than "reading the newspaper"; the latter implies the familiar routine of reading the latest edition of one's usual paper. In a (bad) novel it might be

    When Maud came down next morning, Julian was reading the newspaper.


    When Maud entered the café there was nobody there but a man in a raincoat reading a newspaper.

  23. All true, but it's still weird:

    -If I saw Better Half reading the one magazine he subscribes to, I'd not say 'he's downstairs reading the magazine'. I'd have to say 'a magazine' or 'the June issue of his magazine' or even just 'his magazine', but not 'the'.


    -My dad gets two newspapers. If I saw him reading one, I'd say 'Dad's downstairs, reading the newspaper'. It would not be clear which title we were talking about, but we still are ok with using 'the'.

    As I say, there's a reason I use 'newspaper' as an example in class...it is an interesting word with interesting grammatical distribution.

  24. Lynne

    There's an essential difference between a newspaper and a magazine — idealised ones, that is. A newspaper is a daily phenomenon. (I did say I was talking about idealisations.)

    On any random occasion, if Better Half is reading a newspaper, he's reading the one copy of the one edition for that day. The concrete object designated as 'the newspaper' can only be read now and for the rest of the day. Tomorrow a different object will be 'the newspaper'.

    In many households there is something called 'the magazine' — it comes as a supplement to 'the newspaper'.

    [These comments apply specifically to the collocation read the (news)paper. The collocations in the paper and in the papers are, I think, different — as is I read it in the paper.]

  25. That doesn't address the problem of the person who gets two newspapers a day and it's still called 'the newspaper'. It doesn't work to say it's the most-recently received one either. I let mine pile up, and may be reading the review section from last October, but I could still say I'm reading 'the newspaper'.

  26. I'm not sure this is so remarkable, really. I texted someone earlier to let them know I was on the bus back from seeing the doctor and suggested a trip to the pub where we might watch the football. And as I write this I'm listening to the radio and planning a trip to the theatre. How is reading the newspaper different from any of that?

  27. Lynne

    I don't address those things because for me they are not problems.

    In the past I've engaged in the activity of reading an old (physical) newspaper or several (physical) copies from previous days. I didn't refer to it as reading the (news)paper.

    There was a time when we had two papers, both of them my choice. I never spoke of reading the (news)paper.

    When I was a boy, if my father was reading his Telegraph or if my mother was reading her Express, then I could think of them as reading the (news)paper. But not if my father was reading the Express, or my mother the Telegraph.

    For me, the means what it usually means: 'the one we know about' or 'the one that's relevant'. With read it's generally the latter— I'm reading the paper means 'I'm reading the newspaper that I normally read' or 'I'm reading today's paper'.

  28. See, this is what makes linguists different. There are all sorts of things to unpack here and they're all interesting. I spent semesters in (AmE) grad school working on problems like this, and there are indeed theories to try to explain them. None of them are perfect, which means it continues to be interesting.

    And we may be running into the AmE/BrE thing here. I DON'T need to know which one I'm talking about in order to say something was reading 'the newspaper'. 'There were five men on the train, reading the newspaper'--I didn't check to see if the newspapers were identical, but I can still say that very naturally. It may be different for BrE speakers (I don't know--but the corpus numbers suggest it might be different), but it's not covered by the usual 'the one we can both identify' use of 'the'. Just as with 'the dictionary', we (Americans at least) seem to use it without care for whether the hearer can identify the individual or type of newspaper. Whereas if I said 'I read the book', it only makes sense if I can trust that you'll have the same title in mind as I do.

  29. I think we are running into BrE/AmE differences here. I'm sure that in the UK one can only say that five men were reading the (news)paper if they were all reading the same copy (not impossible, if they had passed round different sections so one had the sports, one the travel, etc). Otherwise the five men in your company were reading their papers. And if you said "I read the book", that is an instant AmE marker; BrE would have "I have read the book"

  30. Lynne

    For me also the five men on the train can be reading the paper. But for me that's an ordinary use of the; each is reading his respective paper. The physical object don't need to be copies of the same periodical, but they do need to be uniquely owned.

    If the men were to swap papers periodically during the journey, then I couldn't afterwards say that they had been reading the paper.

    As for I read the book, there are contexts where this works fine for me. For example:
    • Have you any experience of X?
    • No, but I read the book.

    not referring to any specific book, but meaning 'I've read about it' implying 'I've read what's necessary'.

    It's the equivalent of Been there, done that, bought the tee-shirt.

    In short, when the periodical is the grammatical Direct Object of the Verb read, it is (for me) also a physical object. I thus employ definite or indefinite reference in the normal way. The reference can be generalised I read the paper over breakfast, but (for me) not generic— I can't say For information, I prefer to read the paper rather than watching the news.

    This is not true for in the paper. I can easily say I prefer to read it in the paper rather than seeing it on the news.

    For generic reference we also have the press and the papers. There was a striking TV commercial slogan a few years back The Sunday Times is the papers.

  31. Annabel

    Clearly it's not BrE/AmE difference if I can say The five men were reading the paper and you can't. I suspect that the key differences are that I'm older than you and grew up in a different part of England.

    In Britain, we seem to have almost lost the expression the newspaper some time ago, and the paper may be on its way to joining it.

    The expression the papers, though, is alive and well. Unfortunately for Lynne's statistics, it means quite a few slightly different things including
    • 'that which is published in daily periodicals'
    • 'the press'
    • 'today's newspapers'


  32. David Crosbie:

    I doubt you're that much older than me, you know - but regional differences are important!

  33. Curious supplementary, which has occurred to me and may be relevant. Is there a difference in meaning in BrEng between 'I saw it on television' and 'I saw it on the television'? And if so, is there a difference between 'television' and 'newspaper/paper' in that as well as being an abstract source of news, entertainment etc, the television is a specific object that sits in the corner?

  34. Well, I can think of nothing in response but this:

  35. Well, I can think of nothing in response but

  36. Even if they have several televisions or radios in the house, people will speak of seeing something on "the telly" or hearing it on "the radio". Just as with "the theatre", "the doctor", "the bus", and countless other examples, the 'the' doesn't really signify anything at all. It could be replaced with 'a' without changing the meaning. This is a very common formulation in BrE (is it really not in AmE, too?), and I think Lynne may be reading a little too much into the particular example of "the newspaper".

  37. It is not true that 'the' can be substituted for 'a' without changing the meaning. It may be logically/referentially equivalent, but there's more to language than that. If "The queen walked down the road" it is also true that "A queen walked down the road", but we lose some meaning. If something is 'on television' it refers to the medium, not the object. If it's 'on a television' it refers to the object. If it's 'on the television', it's ambiguous. (The 'on' in the last two is also ambiguous, as the Monty Python sketch makes clear.) What is interesting to me is that 'the newspaper' is treated both as medium and as object, while other printed sources are not.

    Whether there's a BrE/AmE difference is but a research question--a thought experiment. The differences in the AmE & BrE numbers are interesting in that regard. All of these things are things one *can* say in either dialect. But frequency of use can be helpful to look at in learning something about a culture. With something like this, the differences are bound to be subtle, if they are there at all.

  38. You are right, of course. I was oversimplifying.
    But I'm now wondering whether 'the newspaper' really is both an object and a medium as you say. Have you noticed that if you use it as anything other than a medium, for example for swatting flies or lining the rabbit hutch, you can't call it 'the newspaper' any more: it becomes 'a newspaper' or just 'newspaper'.

  39. while other printed sources are not.

    Well, some other printed sources are:

    The programme cost £3 vs It wasn't on the programme

    Similarly the timetable, the order of service, the menu, the guest list, the shopping list etc. These may well be objects, but they may also be notional inventories which have not been written down.

    The only difference I can see is that these texts are much shorter than a newspaper. What they all have in common is that their content is —in principle — predictable and finite.

    Other short texts are open ended like a book. If we say on the ticket, in the letter, on the postcard etc we must be referring to a definite object with writing on it.

    So, it seems to me that what the (news)paper and the dictionary have in common is that the objects embrace a finite body of information (no different from a menu or a timetable) — thus allowing the paper/dictionary/menu/timetable to refer to the totality of information that might be contained.

  40. I've been worrying and worrying about the notion of newspaper as a medium. Tentatively, I suggest that there are two rather different medium notions, with two different grammatical results.

    1. medium = material employed for expression
    We speak of the medium of English, speech, writing, music, prose etc. All of these are uncountable nouns — used with what we in the trade call zero article i.e. not a(n) and not the. However, we also use nouns that are usually countable the medium of theatre, cinema etc or often countable the medium of radio, television etc.

    Related to this are the words we use for modes of carrying physical things and people. Either the nouns are basically uncountable by sea, by air etc or we convert nouns that are usually countable by bus, by train, on foot etc.

    2 medium = channel of communication
    This may cause a different article problem. With abstract expressions like the internet, the airwaves, the press, the definite article is predictable enough. But we also use nouns which are normally concrete the novel, the sonnet, the protest song etc. These expressions could refer to definite concrete objects, but in this 'channel' sense they refer to an abstraction, namely the use of any old novel, sonnet, protest song. One use of the (news)paper(s) refers to the abstract notion of the use of any old newspaper to publish information.

    Confusingly, some of the nouns used for the 'material' meaning are also used for the 'medium'. So a cinema may be a physical building while cinema may be an object of study and the cinema may be a chosen profession. The same is true of theatre.

    This, I suggest, is why we can say either on television or on the television. Seeing TV as a 'material' medium and seeing it as a 'channel' medium amount to the same thing. We might have chose to say *on radio, *on wireless but by chance it never occurred to anyone. But we can say both on air and on the air.

    Mixed up with these 'medium' and 'carrying' uses are some uses of usually countable nouns to refer to the abstraction of associated activity. These fall into two grammatical patterns, which seem to be totally arbitrary — at least I can't see a rationale.
    • zero article – hospital, prison, school etc
    • definite article - the stage, the kitchen, the ring, the doctor etc

    In Britain we have turned an expression referring to the concrete location of most national newspapers — Fleet Street — into an abstraction that refers to the national press collectively. And this despite the fact that all the newspapers have moved to other parts of London. So we have three expressions:
    the press (often with connotations of authorship)
    Fleet Street (often with connotations of business)
    the papers (often with connotations of consumption, reading)

  41. This was such a great read! I always love hearing about all of the little nuances in language whenever I'm in a different country that speaks the same language, because it's amazing just how different the same language can become once you cross into a different part of the world. Thanks for this!

  42. In a TV commercial just now, the noun line has been spotlighted.

    For a long time — and to some extent still now — line referred to the medium of telephony. This is what i called medium = channel of communication so it was on the line and, of course, on the telephone.

    But line has come to refer to the medium of the internet. This would seem to be seen as what I called medium = material employed for expression. The grammatical result can be heard in the commercial. It features John McKenroe and his family (or actors pretending to be his family), and concludes:

    JOHN: You mean we can insure all our gadgets on the line?
    SON: On line, Dad.

  43. Come to think of it, on line (or online) is sort-of ambiguous.

    1. As John McEnroe was supposed to use it, on line amounted to 'through the medium of the internet'.
    2. In, for example, Are we on line right now?, amounts to 'connected to the medium'.

    I think this explain what we do with air as a broadcast medium — usually radio.
    On the air reflects the view of radio medium = channel of communication
    On air denotes current connection — equivalent to live, which is the norm for television.

    No such choice exists for transport by aeroplane; we don't speak of travel(l)ing *by the air.

    PS. We also have this connected now sense with on microphone, on mic, on camera.

  44. @David Crosbie,
    Speaking as someone in the US, "No, but I read the book." always implies a particular book. So, unless there is only one book on the subject, or only one that is relevant (We're both in the same class and there is a textbook we are both using for example), you would get a "which book?" from me if you said that.

    "There were five men on the train, reading the newspaper" only works for me if it was one physical newspaper, not even copies of the same newspaper. For that matter, "a newspaper" wouldn't work either. Something about subject-object agreement that was hammered into me in school.

    Also, what about "the news"? Is there a US/UK difference for that? I don't read newspapers much these days, but I still watch, listen to, and read "the news" all the time, whether it's on TV, radio, or online (the last one is a bit iffy, as far as whether I'd say that). "Where did you hear that? The news."

  45. Boris

    In my BrE speech, it's the verb which can signal what is meant by the news.

    Have you read the news? suggests a newspaper source.
    Did you see the news? suggests TV.
    Have you heard the news? is ambiguous. It could suggest radio, but it often suggests word-of-mouth rumour.

    It's in the news could be true of any medium — or plurality of media. (Probably not rumour, though.)

    The news is bad/good doesn't suggest any medium — simply 'the information that has just reached us'.

  46. @David Crosbie,
    All of this is true in US English as well (except "Did you see the news?" doesn't sound quite right to my ear), but you can also say "I saw it on the news", which means TV or, "I heard it on the news", which can mean radio or TV. I think these examples are more relevant because you can hear, see, or read the news anywhere as long as what you heard (etc) falls under the category of "News". But when you hear it on the news, "the news" is similar to "the newspaper" in that it seems to imply a single source, but does not.

    Interestingly, "I read it on the news" doesn't work for me. I read it in the newspaper, online, on Google News, but not "the news". I guess it has to be a broadcast of some sort in my mind.

  47. Phil McCheddar30 July, 2014 10:02

    Many years ago Ronnie Barker or Mike Yarwood did a sketch on TV where he impersonated a politician speaking on a party political broadcast. He said, "Good evening. This programme is specially intended for the Liberal voter, so I hope he's looking in!" (This was back in the days when there was a political party called The Liberal Party.)

    I think this witticism illustrates why we say the newspaper instead of a newspaper. When Ronnie Barker above said "the Liberal voter", he gave the impression he was talking about the group or class of people who vote Liberal rather than a particular individual belonging to that group. The punchline comes in the 2nd clause where it became apparent "the Liberal voter" was referring to an actual individual and that by implication the Liberal Party was so unpopular it had only one person who voted for it.

    If I say "I was reading the newspaper", I am not using the word newspaper to refer to a physical object (the particular pieces of paper I was holding in my hands) but rather to the abstract concept of a summary of the day's news published in a paper medium. Computer geeks will understand this distinction: object-oriented programming distinguishes between a class and an instance. A class is the hypothetical concept, the property of newspaperiness. An instance of newspaperiness is a realisation of it in an actual physical object.

  48. On the Supreme Court's attitude to 'the dictionary', this posting on Language Log celebrates a change. They were persuaded to ignore the dictionary definition of the.

  49. "She went to the cobbler's/To buy him some shoes/But when she came back/He was reading the news."


  50. Why are foundational English documents such as (the) Domesday Book and (the) Magna Carta now anarthrous? Is this just a scholarly usage? What other documents have lost their definite articles, and why?

  51. Magna Carta isn't English. The document and its title are in Latin — a language with no articles. More to the point it's a name, not a description.

    Personally I always say the Domesday Book or Domesday.

    The earliest uses know to the OED are all instances of the English word included in Latin sentences. The first examples in English texts are

    1513 An olde boke sometyme in ye Guyldehall of London, named Domysdaye.
    1576 The booke of the general suruey of the realme, whiche William the Conquerour caused to bee made..,& to be called Domesday, bycause (as Mathew Parise saieth) it spared no man (but iudged all men indifferently, as the Lord in that great day will doe).
    1601 The Record of which survey was then called Domes-day Booke.

    The first two report it as a name, so we wouldn't expect the. The third collocates it with book but has no the — possibly because doomsday is also a name without the.

  52. Thanks David Crosbie. So the agreement between King John and his unhappy barons has never really used an article, which I never noticed. And the survey of English property made twenty years after the Normans invaded may or may not use a definite article. It's not a new trend in either case.

    The contrast between those the article status of these two documents and examples such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Constitution of the United States, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, etc. intrigues me. Very interesting.

  53. These dictionary attitude differences are fascinating. I can't speak for all Canadians but as for myself, "the dictionary" is far from infallible.

    When I started school (as recently as the '90s), I discovered that Canadian dictionaries are/were terribly inconsistent. I've got one with an entry under "colour" that says, "see color". Actual usage is just as inconsistent. I once saw "yogurt," "yoghurt" and "yogourt" (forget the dictionary, it's valid!) on three signs at the same restaurant.

    In short, I've been ignoring bits of "the dictionary" all my life, regardless of whether the publisher is British, American or Canadian.

  54. Like David Crosbie and others, I haven't used 'newspaper' to refer to an individual newspaper for many years; it's just 'the paper', unless I'm referring to old newspapers for packing, animal bedding and so on. But that doesn't change the argument, though it might affect the GloWBe search.

    Lynne has convinced me that she has a point about the peculiarity of 'the newspaper' (and 'the dictionary') as both medium and object, David Crosbie's examples notwithstanding because they all refer to a specific timetable, shopping list etc. For example one could not say 'Have you seen the changes in the timetable' when referring to a population of six different timetables with no referent.

    I like Phil McCheddar's definition of the class 'the newspaper': "the abstract concept of a summary of the day's news published in a paper medium", an instance of which would be 'a newspaper', and it makes a deal of sense, but I can't believe that English is object-oriented so this works for me as metaphor but not as explanation.

    Regarding television, Lynne says that 'on the television' is ambiguous, which ought to mean that some of the time 'the television' is like 'the newspaper' in referring to both object and medium. But in reality 'on the telly' always refers to televised content rather than the set itself, apart from those very rare occasions - increasingly unlikely as flat-screen TVs become the norm - when a physical object on the telly is being referred to and 'on top of the telly' is not used. However, this looks like 'container for the thing contained' (TV set for televised content) synecdoche, which is clearly not the case for 'the newspaper'.

    A little about 'on the train', which is where Lynne wrote the post. Possibly 'back from the recording' is sufficient to justify the definite article, but Lynne happily wrote about five newspaper-reading men 'on the (indefinite) train' rather than 'on a train'. For me, this use is indistinguishable from the 'the newspaper' example (although I suspect Lynne could distinguish it). 'On the road' and 'In the grave' may be similar. These all have a 'part for the whole' synecdochic feel about them, as though 'the newspaper' stood for 'all newspapers', 'the road' for 'all roads' and 'the grave' for 'all graves'. But that's not how I understood synecdoche to work, so I suppose I am wrong. (Long in the tooth' means 'long in the teeth', but is that simply metaphor?)

    Another possibility: maybe 'the newspaper' is both countable and mass/uncountable: uncountable in Lynne's sense but countable when specific newspapers are meant - somewhat like 'the hair' can refer to all the hairs on one's head ('Rinse and condition the hair') or a specific individual hair ('I picked the hair out of my soup'). I have no idea whether it would still also be polysemy if that explanation held water.

    1. Keith

      David Crosbie's examples notwithstanding because they all refer to a specific timetable, shopping list etc.

      Collective reading for information often requires that each individual is reading the same text. Congregations are in trouble if they don't share the same order of service. Meetings would be chaotic if participants quite literally followed different agendas. But this is a question of how the world works, not one of grammar.

      I don't find it difficult to imagine a restaurant table where each customer has a different menu. Not just physically different but conveying different information. A children's menu, perhaps, a dim sum menu, an all-day menu, a lunch menu, an English translation menu. You get the idea. I could say of half a dozen people each individually consulting a different list of choices:

      They're not ready to order. They're still reading the menu.

      There's even a parallel between in the paper and on the menu. We can use the words when there's no actual physical paper — and likewise when there's no actual physical menu to be read.

      Slightly harder to contextualise, imagine a classroom with children in small groups doing an assortment of construction projects. I could say

      Some groups are half-finished. Some are still collecting he materials. Some are still reading the instructions.

      As for your timetable example, you only need to change the context. For example

      People from all around the country missed the flight because their trains didn't connect as they expected. Confusion and chaos were caused by changes to the timetable.

      I'm thinking of today's fragmented railways, not the old British Rail days when you could perhaps think of a single integrated timetable. No, each missed connection could be blamed on a change to the timetable — each one distinct, and yet collectively a single notion.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)