Showing posts with label determiners. Show all posts
Showing posts with label determiners. Show all posts

Help me with my next book! Small words

I am moving this PS to the top, as I want to be sure it's read!

P.S. I'm happy for everyone to discuss what they're interested in in the comments, but I should emphasi{s/z}e (before I waste anyone's time!) that what I"m looking for are specific anecdotes and witty quotations (etc.) to give  'colo(u)r' to the discussion. I already know what aspects of language the book covers and the relevance of the fields I've mentioned to those aspects. I can't promise that anything offered will be used in the book, but I will be grateful for any stories/quotations/etc. offered.

Please do so in the comments here and not on email, unless there are privacy issues to consider with regard to the story. It's much easier for me to keep track of things if they're all together here.

I hope you will indulge me in an off-SbaCL-topic post. More than that, I hope you will keep me and this post in mind as you go through your days. 

Here's the deal. I'm writing another general-audience (rather than academic) book. It's rather different from The Prodigal Tongue—still about language (and mostly the English language), but without much in the way of nationalism-bashing. Its working title is Small Words and I am so, so fortunate to again have the support of a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award, which gives me time away from my day job to research and write intensively. (This is not a small thing during pandemic times when the day job is 1039% more insane. I thank my colleagues for bearing my absence with such generosity.)

For the purposes of the book, members of the category small words are:

  • linguistic elements that do things rather than mean things 
    • Another way to put this: words with non-referential meaning. They don't "point out" objects or actions or properties in reality or imagination.
    • This includes function words (aka grammatical words, like the and or and in and it and is) and many interjections (like ow or oh or hi or yes).
  • words that have three or fewer phonemes (speech sounds)
    • This often coincides with having three or fewer letters (a, of, the), but not necessarily (that, with, through).

The idea is that there are lots of books that celebrate rare words, big words, dialectal words, forgotten

P.S. I'm happy for everyone to discuss what they're interested in in the comments, but I should emphasi{s/z}e (before I waste anyone's time!) that what I"m looking for are specific anecdotes and witty quotations (etc.) to give  'colo(u)r' to the discussion. I already know what aspects of language the book covers and the relevance of the above fields to those aspects. I can't promise that anything offered will be used in the book, but I will be grateful for any stories/quotations/etc. offered.
words. Some claim to be about words you should know. I want to celebrate the words you already  people take for granted, because they tell us an awful lot about history, psychology, social relations, thinking other words, what it means to have a human mind and a human language.

Many areas of life and work are particularly sensitive to the small words. I can think of lots of people I'd want to interview for the book (and some I already have). In alphabetical order, they include:

  • comedians
  • computer/information scientists
  • editors of various kinds
  • English literature teachers/critics
  • journalists
  • lawyers
  • language (especially English) learners
  • language teachers
  • lexicographers 
  • literacy or (BrE) oracy/(AmE) speech teachers
  • neurologists —and their clients (and their clients' family support)
  • philosophers
  • poets and prose stylists
  • pollsters
  • psychologists
  • psychotherapists
  • Scrabble players—and other word-game aficionados
  • social scientists of various types
  • speech and language therapists —and their clients  (and their clients' family support)
  • translators and interpreters

I'm particularly looking for interesting anecdotes —personal or historical— that hinge on a small-word usage, misunderstanding, argument, insight, etc. 

These are the types of things that serendipity brings me when I'm reading an interesting passage in a  politician's diary, hearing a bit in a stand-up show, or noticing a line in an advertisement. This week I noticed Henrietta Pussycat's use of meow as a "small word". That helped me explain some statistical 'laws' of language. The "hooks" that I can use to explain the science of small words come to me from many avenues. 

I feel very lucky when I run across these things, because the are scattered so far and wide. But, to paraphrase the old adage "the harder I work, the luckier I get", the more I ask for interesting stories, the luckier I am in finding them.

So, please keep me in mind as you go through your days, read your books, watch your entertainment. If you come across quotations, arguments, marvellings, anecdotes about small words, could you drop me a line? If you know of non-academic folk who really should be interviewed about their relationships with small words, let me know. The best way to do that would be to leave a comment at this blog post, where I'll be able to dip back and find what people have sent me. If the information needs to be presented more anonymously, then email works.

This has been my cry for help! Thanks for reading! I'll leave you with this thought about smallness from Bertrand Russell:

There is no need to worship mere size. […] Sir Isaac Newton was very much smaller than a hippopotamus, but we do not on that account value him less.

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coronavirus and COVID-19

A retired colleague contacted me with this query:
Has a dialect difference emerged between US novel coronavirus/new coronavirus and UK COVID-19, do you think? Novel coronavirus/new coronavirus is favoured by Reuters, but I don't know whether that counts in the dialect balance.

I hear plenty of COVID-19 from US sources, so that didn't strike me as quite right, but I had a look (on 29 April) at the News on the Web (NOW) corpus, which (so far this year) had 226 covi* (i.e. words starting with covi-) per million words in US and 49 per million in UK. For coronav* it's 362 US v 92 UK. (I searched that way so that I'd get all variations, including COVID without the -19, without the hyphen, coronaviruses, etc.).

Now, I don't trust the geographical coding on the NOW corpus very much, because you have things like the Guardian showing up in the US data because it has a US portal that has US-particular content, but also all the UK content—and that doesn't do us much good in sorting out AmE from BrE. I really don't know why the per-million numbers are so much higher in the US sources, since the news in both places is completely taken over by the virus and stories related to it. But anyway, about 38% of the (named) mentions of the disease are COVID in the US and 35% in the UK, so there is no notable difference in preference for COVID. I found it interesting that the two newspaper apps on my phone (Guardian [UK] and New York Times) prefer coronavirus in headlines, even though COVID-19 is shorter.

But my colleague is right that there is a lot more new/novel coronavirus in US than UK. About 12% of AmE usages are prefaced by an adjective that starts with N, while only about 3% of BrE coronaviruses are. Distribution is fairly even between novel (from medical usage) and new. It's worth noting that since I'm only searching news media,  new/novel is probably far more common in this dataset than it would be in everyday interactions.

Including the definite article (the coronavirus) seems to be more common in AmE. If I just look for how many coronavirus occurrences are preceded by the, the proportion is 45% for AmE and 37% for BrE.  this search hits examples like the one in the 'middle school' story on the left: the coronavirus lockdown where the the really relates to the lockdown. So, to try to avoid this problem, I searched for (the) coronavirus [VERB] and (the) coronavirus [full stop/period]. In those cases, then AmE news media have the the about 50% of the time, while BrE ones have it less than 30% of the time. That misses the new/novel coronavirus (because of the adjective between the and coronavirus), so the real difference in the before coronavirus is probably more stark.

The media's style guides are supposed to guide the choices journalists and editors make in phrasing such things, but how strictly they follow their own guides is another matter. I had a look at a couple:

The Guardian Style Guide (UK) says:
coronavirus outbreak 2019-20
The virus is officially called Sars-CoV-2 and this causes the disease Covid-19. However, for ease of communication we are following the same practice as the WHO and using Covid-19 to refer to both the virus and the disease in our general reporting. It can also continue to be referred to as the coronavirus.  [I've added the bold on the latter]

The Associated Press (US) gives similar advice, though it goes into more particular rules for science stories.
As of March 2020, referring to simply the coronavirus is acceptable on first reference in stories about COVID-19. While the phrasing incorrectly implies there is only one coronavirus, it is clear in this context. Also acceptable on first reference: the new coronavirus; the new virus; COVID-19.
In stories, do not refer simply to coronavirus without the article the. Not: She is concerned about coronavirus. Omitting the is acceptable in headlines and in uses such as: He said coronavirus concerns are increasing.
Passages and stories focusing on the science of the disease require sharper distinctions.
COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019, is caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2. When referring specifically to the virus, the COVID-19 virus and the virus that causes COVID-19 are acceptable. But, because COVID-19 is the name of the disease, not the virus, it is not accurate to write a new virus called COVID-19. [bold added]
In comparing the two passages you can see one predictable difference between them. AP writes COVID in all caps, Guardian has Covid with the initial capital only. There is a widespread preference in BrE (and generally not in AmE) to differentiate between initalisms and true acronyms. (There's been a bit in the Guardian about it, here.)

In an initialism, you pronounce the names of the letters: the WHO stands for World Health Organization and it is pronounced W-H-O and not "who". It's spel{led/t} with all caps (or small caps), no matter where you live. (AmE styles are more likely than BrE styles to insist on (BrE) full stops/(AmE) periods in these: W.H.O.—but styles do vary.)

Acronyms use the initial letters of words to make a new word, pronounced as a word. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's short name is pronounced "nasa", making it a true acronym. All AmE styles that I know of spell it with caps: NASA. Many BrE styles spell it like any other proper name, with just an initial capital: Nasa.

This disease name provides a slightly different case because it's doesn't just use initial letters: COronaVIrusDisease. That's probably why I'm seeing some initial-only Covid in AmE, for instance in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where they spell other acronyms (like NASA) in all caps.

Other variants, like CoViD and covid are out there—but they are in the minority. COVID and Covid rule.While some other UK sources, like the Guardian, follow the initial-cap style (Covid), many UK sources use the all-cap style, including the National Health Service and the UK government.

And on that note, I hope you and yours are safe.

P.S. Since I'm talking about newspaper uses, I haven't considered pronunciation—but that discussion is happening in the comments. 
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playing (the) musical instruments

John Wells wrote to ask:
Have you discussed BrE playing the piano/violin vs. AmE playing piano/violin?
Not really, John, and it turns out that it's one of those things that's (all together now!) more complicated than you might think! 

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) has 689 play* the piano to 309 play* piano. (The * there used as a wildcard in corpus searches; so play* gets us play, playing, played, etc.) That's more than two arthrous (fancy word for having a the) cases for every anarthrous (fancy word for not having a the) one--in American English.

But those numbers need a bit more checking because any dialect would have playing piano music without a the. To get a better comparison, I looked at cases where piano is followed by an adverb (e.g. play [the] piano beautifully/well/loudly/tonight...) so that we can be sure that piano is a noun on its own and not a noun modifying another noun. Doing that, there are 53 arthrous cases and 23 anarthrous ones in COCA. So, pretty much like it was when I didn't take those sane, linguisticky precautions. The British National Corpus, in comparison, has 14 arthrous cases and 1 anarthrous. (But keep in mind that the data from BNC is 20 years older than that in COCA.)

The moral of that part of the story: it would not be right to say that  play piano is AmE for BrE play the piano. Instead, play piano is a lesser-used AmE variant of General English play the piano. The image here, from, illustrates both variants living happily together.

Personally, I could say either, but prefer it with the the.  A bit more rooting around in the Corpus of Historical American English shows a bit of anarthrous piano-playing throughout the 20th century, but it really gets going in the 1970s, when the proportions are like those in COCA.

But hold your horses. If we look at other instruments, it gets more complicated.  (I'm rounding the numbers, unless they're <2 .="" comment-2--="">
  • Violin: In COCA, the is favo(u)red 3:1.  In BNC, 5:1.
  • Harp: In COCA, the 4:1. BNC 8:0.
  • Guitar: Ziggy played guitar. Maybe the Spiders from Mars made him do it without the the, but in 1990s UK, the British were following suit and, like 2010s Americans, using play guitar twice as much as play the guitar. 
  • Bass: Looks like a reversal! COCA 2:1.  BNC: 1:5.
    I tried discounting cases like playing (the) bass line/notes, but taking them out made no real difference.
  • Trumpet: COCA1.4:1. BNC 5:2. 
  • Flute: COCA 4:1. BNC 8:1.
  • Drums: Play drums outnumbers play the drums in both dialects. Is it because it's plural? But what about...
  • Spoons: Tiny numbers, but more the in AmE and equal numbers of both in BrE.
I could go on looking for more instruments, but I won't. (Report your findings in the comments if you wish.) It looks like BrE eschews the more often for stereotypical rock instruments than for others -- guitar, bass, drums (Bowie's fault? American rock'n'roll's fault?). I don't see a clear pattern to the US preferences--but in general it's not completely unusual to have anarthrous ones. Bass is the interesting one for its anarthrousness in BrE.

Is it just with play, though? No. Going back to sticking with piano, COCA has half as many practic(e*) piano as practic(e*) the piano. BNC has four practis(e*) with the and one without.

On piano is also common in COCA (about 1/3 as many as on the piano). BNC has 20 on piano to 73 on the piano--very much the same. In this case, some of the on the pianos will have been about particular, physical pianos, as in I stubbed my toe on the piano. There's no possibility of I stubbed my toe on piano. But if a singer were giving credit to her band, she could say ...and Lynne Murphy on piano! or ...and Lynne Murphy on the piano!  (Not me, of course, I only had a year of lessons.) I'm waiting for one of you to go out and listen to dozens of concerts with British and American singers to tell me if they all say on drums! on bass! 

Finally, the why questions.

Why do we put a the before instruments? It's a funny thing. If I lie and say I play the piano, it's not a particular piano that I am playing. It's that I have the potential to play any piano. (Whereas if I say I've draped myself over the piano, it is a particular piano.) It's kind of like the bus in I ride the bus to work. In that case, it's not the particular physical bus we're talking about--that can vary. It's the whole package that goes with bus-riding. I ride a bus that travels along the route between my street/road and my workplace. There's a package that goes along with pianos too. I'm not just playing the instrument, I'm playing music on the instrument. The music that I know how to play on any "the piano" is kind of like the routes that I travel on any "the bus".

In spite of all that, there's no pressing semantic reason for the the. We don't play the cards or play the dominoes even though similarly, if I say I know how to play dominoes, I'm saying that I know the rules for playing on any instrument of that type (any set of dominoes). [Yes, dominoes are the instrument, not the game--though people who only know one domino game tend to call it 'dominoes'. I am particularly fond of Mexican Train.] So why do we usually have a the with musical instruments, but not with game equipment? (The answer: because that's what we learned to do.)

The arthrous version is unhelpfully ambiguous, so maybe that is a contributor to the rise of the anarthrous alternative. If I say I play the piano I could be trying to point out that I know how to play a piano (so invite me to play at your wedding), or it could be saying that I play a particular piano habitually (so don't get rid of it). I play piano doesn't seem to have that ambiguity, so could be seen as more communicatively efficient. The play + bare-noun construction is familiar, since we say things like I play tennis, I play jazz, I play goalie.

If you want to carry the conversation toward(s) other cases of (an)arthrous variation in AmE and BrE, have a look at the past posts with the 'determiners' label. I've written about some of the famous ones already, and your comments on them would be most welcome at those old posts (which are still regularly read). And you're most welcome to carry on the conversation about musical instruments (and games) on this post, of course!
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'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!
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It must be school dance season, because two people have written to me about (AmE) proms. This is usually translated into BrE as school dance, but a prom is a specific kind of school dance--a formal dance (that is, the clothes are typically formal, not the dancing) that happens in high school in either the senior year (i.e. the final year) or the junior year (i.e. the penultimate year). These may be called senior prom and junior prom, respectively. (For discussion of all those school terms, please see back here.) Proms involve various traditions, such as the election of a prom king and queen, drinking too much and engaging in irresponsible sexual activity. Not that I'd know. I wasn't invited to my prom. And the bitterness has almost worn off.

The term comes from promenade (perhaps because the dancers promenade in their nice clothes), and if you look it up in the OED, it says:
1. U.S. = PROMENADE n. 2c.
...leading you to the definition under promenade, which is kind of silly, as NO ONE calls it a promenade (dance), and the last AmE quotation they have for promenade in this meaning is from 1933. Rather than saying that prom is a shortening of promenade in this case, I think we should say that prom is historically related to promenade--by abbreviation, sure, but the abbreviation happened long ago and was forgotten about.

Paul wrote a while ago to point out that this meaning of prom seems to have made it into BrE, as is evident in this BBC News story. Prom is more usually found in the plural in BrE, as (the) Proms, which the OED records as:
2. = promenade concert (s.v. PROMENADE n. 4b); the Proms, the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, now given annually at the Royal Albert Hall, London (also in sing.).
Follow that cross-reference and you get to:
promenade concert, a concert at which the audience walk about instead of being seated or at which a proportion of the audience stands.
The Proms are all over the place now, not just in the Royal Albert Hall. To get a taste of the scope and history of the Proms, see the BBC Proms website.

The other e-mail I got about proms was from new reader Julie, following other discussions of the on the blog. She says:
A recent "the" usage caught my ear. In the late 60s outside Philadelphia, I went to the prom. (Actually, I didn't, but if I had, I would have said "the"...definitely.) My 16-year-old daughter & her friends are going (really!) to prom. No "the", ever. I have no idea if this represents a temporal change or regional difference.
I've taken an instant liking to Julie, since she was promless (oh, let's be positive--prom-free!) in high school too, so we'll ignore the fact that this isn't really a BrE/AmE query. Prom versus the prom seem to be in free variation in many young people's (American) English, judging from the places Google took me--the same person within a single web discussion would call it both, though with a stronger tendency (it seemed to me) to capitali{s/z}e Prom when it had no the. It's my impression that this is a generational difference, not a regional one (and certainly not an AmE/BrE one, since they're only starting to get the hang of [orig. AmE] calling dances proms here). There's a discussion with a vote on the subject over here [link now dead], but I suspect that many of the voters in that poll are not of prom-going age. On this site, there's someone who seems to think that the prom/the prom variation is a rural/urban thing. In the discussion here, someone thinks it's regional--but no one's identified the region. There was quite a bit of discussion of this last year on the American Dialect Society list (you can search the archives here), but I couldn't find any reference there to a particular regional origin.

An ex-sweetheart used to say when leaving the house, I'm off like a prom dress! I say this in the UK every once in a while, and only I chuckle. But that's a feeling I'm used to. Probably indicative of why I didn't get to go to (the) prom.
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(the) Gambia, (the) Lebanon, etc.

I wasn't going to do a whole post tonight. Really, I wasn't. I was going to be a productive member of academia and get some real work done--having spent all of my day in meetings. But in a clever moment of self-sabotage, I brought the wrong version of my document home, so there's no point in working on it. Genius!

This post is in response to some off-topic commenting after the (the) menopause post. (I do have some rather control-freaky tendencies when it comes to off-topic commenting. If someone comments about something that deserves its own post, then I try to stem the tide of comments on it. It's not [necessarily!] that I want the glory for posting about it. It's that the comments are not searched when one does a 'search this blog' search, thus no one can ever find those interesting comments again--and I aim for searchability here!)

So...the comments back there are about which geographical names get a the in front of them, and whether or not these differ by dialect. Before I get into listing these, let's start with a little primer on the relationship between proper nouns (particularly place names) and definite determiners like the.

A referring expression--that is to say (typically) a noun phrase that is uttered/written in order to represent some entity in a (real or imaginary) world--is definite if it is used in a particular context to refer to something that is uniquely identifiable. So the indefinite noun phrase a linguist is used when the speaker does not expect that the hearer will be able to identify a unique linguist for the context--as in (1).
(1) A linguist walks into a bar...
Once you've said (1), there is a unique linguist in the context, so you can then go on to say (2):
(2) The linguist says to the bartender "Is that a Canadian accent I'm detecting?"
Proper nouns, like England or lynneguist are (sometimes phrasal) nouns that refer uniquely. Even if you knew your conversational partner didn't know someone named Letitia Bogbottom, you would (usually) utter it without any determiner, as in (3), because there's no reason to mark it as definite since it's inherently definite.
(3) (*The) Letitia Bogbottom walks into a bar...
But some proper names include a definite determiner (and some languages put determiners with proper nouns more regularly--so in German, I'm told, it's much more natural to call someone the equivalent of the Donald than it is in English). In English, a number of types of place names take a definite determiner as a matter of course:
River names: the Mississippi, the Yangtze, the Ouse (which, along with the Uck ranks among may favo(u)rite British river names. Fancy a paddle down the Uck? Aren't you glad to know that Harveys Bitter is made on the Ouse?)

Plural names: the United States, the Outer Hebrides, the Netherlands

(Some kinds of) descriptive phrasal names often take a the: the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union
And then there are some apparently exceptional cases. For instance, cities generally don't take the but the Bronx does (because it's named after its river). Mountains generally don't, but the Matterhorn does (I have no idea why). And countries whose names aren't plural or descriptive phrases generally don't take a the (Canada, Russia, Sri Lanka), but some do. Which brings us (finally!) to: which ones do, which ones don't, which ones are AmE and which ones are BrE. Last night, I sat down at a very nice pub (with a sausage-and-mash [BrE; AmE mashed potatoes]-themed menu; woo-hoo!) with BrE-speaking Better Half and AmE-speaking Recyclist (whom I called the Recyclist last time I mentioned her, but what's a definite determiner among friends?) in order to quiz them on country names. Here's what we came up with:

the Congo (referring to the river or the country)(the) Congo (referring to the country--aka Congo-Brazzaville)
the GambiaGambia
(the) Ukraine(the) Ukraine
the LebanonLebanon

Each of these deserves some comment.

Congo: The name of the country is based on the name of the river, and any river gets a the. Confusingly, there are now two countries that border that river that have Congo in their names, but the country formerly known as Zaire (and before that the Belgian Congo) is generally referred to these days as DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Now I have to say here that this is more my judg(e)ment than Recyclist's. In Africanist linguistic circles, at least in the US (in which I used to travel), the name of the country doesn't have a the, as the the gives it a kind of 'colonial' feel. So, I might say the Congo to refer to the place in pre-independence days, or to refer to the region more generally, but in order to refer to one of the sovereign nations, I'd leave off the the. Note that in the full names of the countries ([Democratic] Republic of...), there is a the, translated from the French name.

Gambia: Here I'm cheating and ignoring Recyclist's evidence. Recyclist says the Gambia, and so I insisted to her that she couldn't, because she's an AmE speaker. After some prodding, it turns out that she has a Gambian sister-in-law and she learned to say the Gambia from her, not from other AmE speakers. I don't think I'd ever heard the Gambia until I left the US, but I hear it frequently from a fellow Scrabbler, the Twitcher, who travels often to that part of Africa. He is of a certain generation. A certain generation older than Better Half, who says: "I'd never say that. It's too colonialist." Again, this has a the because the name of the country is based on the name of the river.

Ukraine: Both AmE and BrE have the Ukraine, but both my informants and I believe that since it's become a country in its own right, we're more likely to call it Ukraine. We've probably been influenced by the fact that many newspapers are now eschewing the the. It's thought to have originally meant 'borderland', and the the came from the sense of the name as a description.

Lebanon: While Better Half generally thought most of the definite-determinered examples sounded "old-fashioned", he was adamant that it's always the Lebanon. I think he's been unduly influenced by the Human League. The the here apparently comes from the name of the mountain that the country is named after: Mount Lebanon or the Lebanon. But why does this mountain have a the when most others don't? Don't ask me. Other than in the context of discussing 1980s music from Britain, I've never heard the Lebanon from an AmE speaker.

Argentina/Sudan: Neither of my informants had any inclination to say the Sudan, perhaps demonstrating that that the is pretty far on its way out of regular use. (Sudan comes from the Arabic for 'black land'.) And while neither would say the Argentine to refer to the place, BH recogni{s/z}ed it as a really old-fashioned name for Argentina. The Argentine seems to have poetic roots.

After that tour of the world, I'm exhausted. Feel free to leave other examples in the comments.

P.S. 22 August 2014 Twitter follower  @maceochi
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(the) menopause, (the) flu, (the) hospital

My friend (and fellow datebook-sayer) the Recyclist arrived in the UK this weekend, and was surprised by the springiness of the spring here. (This week, it's worth coming to Southern England for the weather.) As we were walking around Notting Hill on Sunday, she marvel(l)ed at the wisteria in bloom, and lamented to the Networker that while hers used to bloom all the time, it has become very irregular. I (jokingly!) hypothesi{s/z}ed that her wisteria might be going through (BrE) the menopause. Having not heard me, she asked me to repeat myself and I found myself switching to the AmE version: menopause (without the). The is a definite determiner (search 'determiner' on that link), which means that it is used to indicate the uniqueness of something within a particular context (well, that's a good enough description for present purposes). And you could say, 'ok, that makes sense, since it only comes once in a lifetime.' But that explanation would predict that BrE would also use the before puberty, which it generally doesn't. So I don't know why it's there, but it's been there in BrE from the earliest example in the OED (1872).

On the other hand, AmE tends to say the flu and BrE tends to do it without the the (and often with an apostrophe: 'flu). The Networker tells me that she was more used to hearing it with the the when she was a child, and sure enough, it is the (')flu in the OED until the last example, 1957 (which is before the N was born, but no doubt the the lingered beyond that date). In a sense, the AmE the is a bit out-of-date--after all, we usually don't know which unique influenza bug we're referring to when we use the term. (And, annoyingly, many people use flu for bad colds, which, like using migraine to refer to any headache, should be a punishable offen{c/s}e.)

So one's tempted to say that there's a the balance at work here: if a the goes missing in one dialect, it has to be replaced somewhere else within that dialect. But if I said that, someone would bring up hospital as evidence that AmE has one more the than BrE.) As is well known (so well known that I'm not supposed to be mentioning it), in BrE one ends up in hospital and in AmE one ends up in the hospital when (the) flu gets too bad. Americans often express wonder that there's no the in this phrase in BrE, but note that there's no the in go to school or go to church in either dialect. When referring to being in the institution for that institution's main purpose, there is no the for church, school or (AmE) college or (BrE) university. So, if you're a (BrE) pupil/(AmE) student (or a teacher) you could say (1), but if you're not, you'd have to say (2).
  1. I left my pen at school.
  2. I left my pen at the school.
BrE carries this through for hospitals, in that if one is engaged in the business of the hospital in the role of a patient, then the the is left out. So, we get no the with the description of patient in the sickhouse, but a the for a visitor to it, as in (3) and (4).
3. She was in hospital for weeks. (AmE in the hospital)
4. I was at the hospital to visit her. (=AmE)
Note that (5) (the hospital equivalent of (1)) is no good because while the person in (1) is still the school's student after they leave the school for the day, the person in (5) is no longer the hospital's patient (or at least not an in-patient) after they leave the hospital. So, (5) sounds like someone took their sick pen to the pen hospital for treatment.
5. *I left my pen in hospital.
And now I'm going to bed. Which is not the same thing as going to the bed, which wouldn't involve getting under the (AmE) comforter /(BrE) duvet and dreaming of determiners.

Postscript: Since writing this, I've written about this issue again (possibly better) in Babel magazine, number 4. If you like reading things like this blog, you might want to consider a subscription...

Post-postscript:I've got much better research on this topic now in the book, The Prodigal Tongue.
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having a Chinese

Someone who regularly reads/comments on this blog (you know who you are, but I won't say because your blog seems pretty anonymi{s/z}ed) wrote yesterday:
we went to the supermarket and then had a Chinese.
I suppose we could put this with the count/mass differences I discussed last week. In AmE you could have Chinese for dinner or have Chinese food, but have a Chinese sounds a little like cannibalism.

This have a [insert cuisine here] construction is used for take-away (BrE; AmE = take-out) meals, rather than fine dining experiences. Other examples:
[on the great nightlife for yoof (BrE slang) in Doncaster:] ...all we can do is go into town on a Friday night. Or maybe go to the cinema and have a McDonalds. (
When in Spain, do as the locals do...have an Indian. (Benidorm Spotlight)
When I have a Burger King I have a diet coke to offset the damage. (What Mountain Bike Forum)

In AmE, you could go to McDonalds or eat at McDonalds or have a Big Mac, but you couldn't have a McDonalds. Unless you were a franchisee, of course.

Better Half points out that in AmE you can get your coffee in a to-go cup, but in the UK it has to be a take-away cup, which might be made of paper or polystyrene (AmE=styrofoam).
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)