that article

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Wed Jan 20 16:09:27 UTC 2010

On Jan 20, 2010, at 5:50 AM, David Barnhart wrote:

> I'm inclined to give _the mumps_ and _the measles_ the nod for higher
> acceptance in my speech than _the whooping cough_ in the framework:
> I c[a]ught ____.  OR I have ____.

my judgments as well.  but there's clearly a lot of variation here --
from item to item, occasion to occasion, social group to social group,
and time to time.

these discussions of (an)arthrousness (which come up here every so
often) cover a lot of phenomena that probably have nothing deep to do
with one another, beyond variation between article (usually, but not
always, the definite article) and zero: with proper names (many
separate cases here: the Mississippi, the OED, the FBI, Language Log,
CBS, etc.), with disease names, in expressions like "in (the)
hospital", and many many more.

people are inclined to look for (an)arthrousness as a general property
of varieties, running across all these many contexts, though there's a
great deal of convention in these things.  people are also inclined to
look for "deep" reasons for the conventions.  when we're dealing with
alternative versions in a single variety ("in church" vs. "in the
church", for instance), we should expect there to be some semantic/
pragmatic difference, and there might well be generalizations covering
some classes of cases.  but looking for some deep reason why, say, BrE
allows "in hospital" but AmE does not (so "in the hospital" is
ambiguous in AmE, between the senses of BrE "in hospital" and "in the
hospital") is surely asking for too much.

it would be quite a task  to catalogue the usages of just one speaker
for all the cases where there might be a choice between an arthrous
and an anarthrous variant.  it would be an astonishingly large task to
survey all the usages that are around.  the best we can do here is to
sample some bits -- but we can't conclude much from these bits.


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