47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns

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Towers

Grammar books say some proper nouns always have “the” and some never have it. However, these rules are breakable in certain circumstances

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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”.

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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:

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Without ‘the’

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)

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With ‘the’

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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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12 thoughts on “47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns

    • Hi Avanthi, and thanks for your question. Names beginning with “Mr” or “Ms” are treated the same as names without. You could leave the space in your example blank, or add “a”, depending on what you, the speaker, expect your listener to know. If you think s/he already knows the name, using “a” would be strange; but if you think the name is unfamiliar to your listener, using “a” would be desirable.

  1. A few years ago, I was in an English classroom in a secondary school, and the English teacher (being trained) walked in holding this book, “English grammar for dummies”. She then told the students that she wasn’t great at grammar and she had to refer to her ‘grammar book’. She tried to explain simple examples of independent clause and subordinate clauses, and she made such a big mess. I really felt sorry for the students.

    I’m appalled by the lack of English grammar by so many teachers in this country. We’re not talking about relatively high level of English grammar like subjunctive or analysing clauses. I’m talking about a basic understanding of noun, verb, adjective and adverb, or gerunds. A lot of teachers still tell students that ‘verb is a doing word.’

    • Part of the reason for this problem with teachers, perhaps, is the emphasis that is placed by the leading TESOL training courses on classroom methodology at the expense of language analysis. Both of these areas can’t be thoroughly mastered in a 100-hour course. I’ve always believed that you can’t properly train to be an English teacher unless you study the subject for at least a year (or come to it from previous study of language). Unfortunately previous study of language is getting rarer and rarer in Britain. It seems to have acquired a bit of the same reputation as Maths: only for “clever” people. How misguided!

  2. I found your blog through Opalla. What a brilliant site! Thank you.

    My first English teacher in London (teaching English for my proficiency test) was shocked that I couldn’t use articles properly. I didn’t put ‘a, an, the’ in the right place. She told me that all English nouns took an article, so I put articles in all of my nouns and made more mistakes, as you don’t put articles in abstract nouns, do you?

    My high school teacher gave up. She just told us to have a ‘feel’ for the language. But, as a non native speaker, it’s quite hard to ‘feel’ what’s natural and what’s not.

    • Thanks for sharing this. I never expected when I was being educated in English and foreign languages in the 1960s that British educators would know so little about them in the years to follow. The ignorance has been embarrassing, but hopefully is now being addressed. I haven’t written much about article usage on this site because there is plenty in my grammar book (I try to say different things here from what is there). What I will say, though, is that articles certainly are possible with abstract nouns. You can always use “the” (if you intend the meaning of “the”). Whether or not you can ever use “a” depends on countability: no with uncountable abstract nouns, yes with countable. The idea that abstract nouns don’t have an article probably comes from the fact that most of them are (a) uncountable (ruling out “a”), and (b) general in their meaning (ruling out “the”). I gave some examples of countable abstract nouns in the posts on countable noun meanings.

  3. Thanks again for this. My grammar teacher taught me the rules in Grade 7 (50 years ago, haha) and this is an excellent review. U an a believer that Grammar has to be taught and committed to memory by rote sometimes.

    • Thanks. I think rote learning can help, yes, but I also believe it benefits some people more than others. I would love my ideas to be universally appealing, but I would be surprised if that were to happen!

      • My children grew in Canada and the school never taught them grammar, sentence structures, etc. I often tell them that I may not write good English (as a second language), but at least I try to write grammatical English. What do schools do in England now?

      • I agree. I’ve found that my own conscious knowledge of grammar rules helps me to be a more accurate and confident writer. I never agreed with the anti-grammar policies in British schools in the 1970s and 1980s. Things are better in Britain today. One of my daughters is a primary school teacher in London, and she found she had to study grammar during her teacher training so as to be able to teach it now.

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