Grammar books say some proper nouns always have “the” and some never have it. However, these rules are breakable in certain circumstances
GENERAL FEATURES OF ARTICLE USAGE WITH PROPER NOUNS
“Proper” nouns are a subset of English nouns, alongside “countable” and “uncountable” ones. Happily, whereas these other kinds can be quite hard to identify (see 14. Noun Countability Clues 1), proper nouns are easily recognisable from the kinds of things they stand for, plus the fact that in reading their first letter is a capital regardless of sentence position.
Proper nouns also seem to have easier article usage rules: the same noun tends to have the same article choice – usually either the or “zero” – regardless of where it is used. It is the meaning of the noun – which fixes it as “proper” in the first place – that also determines the choice of article. This is different from the choice between a(n), the and “zero” before other nouns, which depends partly on an article meaning that needs to be expressed and partly on the kind of noun being used (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”).
Nevertheless, article usage with proper nouns is not completely without problems. What I wish to do here is to show how the normal rules for using or not using the with a proper noun sometimes have to be broken. Where the focus is on the absence of an article, it is grammatical rules that I am interested in, rather than space-saving ones, which are considered elsewhere in this blog under the heading 158. Abbreviated Sentences. Other posts that have something to say about the include 6. Adjectives with no Noun 1: People-Naming, 89. Using “the” with General Meaning, 102. Adjectives with no Noun 2: Thing-Naming and 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”.
LIST OF PROPER NOUN TYPES
Grammar books tend to list proper nouns according to whether they cannot or must have The (with a capital). Lists like the following are thus fairly common:
People (Alicia, Ghosh)
Cities (Paris, Monrovia)
Airports and Harbours (Entebbe Airport, Sydney Harbour)
Languages (Swahili, Hindi)
Sports Teams (Manchester United, Queen’s Park)
Streets (Park Lane, Trafalgar Square, Broadway)
Planets (Earth, Mars, Venus)
Days and Months (Tuesday, December)
Most Countries (Ireland, North Korea)
Most Mountains (Mount McKinley, Table Mountain)
Most Academic Subjects (History, English Language)
Most Shops and Companies (Barclays Bank, Marconi – but The BBC)
Rivers (The Indus, The Missouri)
Deserts (The Kalahari, The Atacama)
Mountain ranges (The Andes, The Ruwenzori)
Seas/Oceans (The South China Sea, The Arctic Ocean)
Plural Countries/Areas (The Maldives, The West Indies)
Most Newspapers (The Times, The Economist)
Museums and Art Galleries (The Louvre, The Prado, The National Gallery)
In addition, some names of buildings have the and some do not. We say The Eiffel Tower, The White House, The Taj Mahal and The London Underground, but we also say Blackpool Tower, London Bridge, Notre Dame Cathedral and Buckingham Palace.
There are also some nouns that might be called “occasional” proper nouns, since they allow a choice about the use of an initial capital. They may express compass points (see 151. Ways of Using Compass Words), seasons, decades or human (and divine) roles (see 62. Choices with Capital Letters). Most need the.
Of all the categories listed above, “days and months” is perhaps the least rigid in its article requirements, since a is quite often necessary, e.g. a Friday in May. “Zero” is used to talk about single particular days/months, a to talk about multiple (general) or single non-particular ones. Such variability results, of course, from the fact that there are many different days and months with the same name.
PROPER NOUNS USED LIKE ADJECTIVES
The Guinlist post 38. Nouns Used Like Adjectives shows how a noun is often usable before another noun in order to describe it like adjectives do. The post also points out that such “adjectival” nouns have no influence on the presence or absence of a(n) or the before them, this being the prerogative of the noun they are describing, as in this example:
(a) World wealth has greatly increased.
The adjectival noun here is world. We would normally expect to find the in front of it, but we do not find any article here because wealth is the controlling noun, and its uncountability rules out a while its generic meaning rules out the (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”).
Proper nouns are as easily used like adjectives as other nouns are (see 136. Types of Description by Nouns). They have to follow the same rules for the presence or absence of a(n)/the. Consider these:
(b) The Manila climate can be uncomfortable.
(c) Arctic Ocean wildlife is suffering.
In (b), the city name Manila, which would not normally follow the, does so because the next noun climate is singular and countable, and hence needs an article. The only way Manila could be used before climate in its normal way, without an article, is by being given an apostrophe ending – Manila’s climate – a very possible alternative (see 58. Optional Apostrophe Endings). In (c) the normal the found with Arctic Ocean is absent because of wildlife, an uncountable noun that here has general meaning and is hence, like wealth, unable to have an article (though The Arctic Ocean’s wildlife is also possible).
Thus, placing a proper noun in front of another noun in order to describe it is a noteworthy situation where the normal rules for using or not using an article with a proper noun may not seem to apply.
PROPER NOUNS THAT CAN REPRESENT DIFFERENT POSSIBILITIES
Some proper nouns, especially those referring to people and places, stand for more than one possibility. This is true, for example, of London, which is the name of a Canadian city as well as the capital of the UK. In ordinary usage we do not need to clarify which London we are talking about, since the context will make it obvious. If we do have to give a clarification, however, we can put the in front of the proper noun. The following example is from the post 34. Relative Pronouns and Commas:
(d) The London that is in Canada is sometimes confused with the London (which is) in England.
As this sentence shows, using the to clarify a proper name is likely to involve a later that or which (without a comma). An alternative way of clarifying proper names – without adding the – is in the post 77. Apposition.
In some cases we can even use a before names of people and places, especially the former. Sentences like the following are fairly common in the workplace:
(e) An Alan Jones is here to see you.
The article a makes it clear that the speaker does not think the addressee knows this Mr Jones. This use of a might in fact be a short way of saying a person called (Alan Jones).
Also worth mentioning here is the use of one before a person’s name (which was asked about once by a reader of this blog ). This usage also indicates that the person is not known, but seems to suggest in addition that he/she is somehow unusual or strange.
PROPER NOUNS WITH VARIABLE USES
Sometimes we have to go against a normal article rule because a proper noun is not being used in its normal way. Take the name The London Underground. This is quite often written without the in official notices to passengers, like this:
(f) London Underground regrets that no trains are running today.
I think that the reason for the absence of the here is that the noun is being used as a company name (like American Express or British Petroleum). When the is present, the speaker is more likely to be thinking about the actual operation (trains and railway lines) than its management, e.g.
(g) The London Underground gets hot in summer.
A similar (though not the same) thing happens with English Language, the name of a subject on a timetable. If it is written the English language (with the and a small “l”), it is just the name of the language (not a “proper” noun at all). There is a similarity here to familiar contrasts like the following, which involve ordinary nouns:
(h) The doctor went to the hospital/prison/college.
(i) The doctor went to hospital/prison/college.
With the, we understand that a visit was made for a purpose that is not clear. Without it, the purpose is to be a “customer” of the place visited (as patient, inmate or student). The similarity is that the usage without the again implies a human activity rather than a static object.