Omission of definite article

Damien Hall djh514 at YORK.AC.UK
Thu Jan 21 11:15:14 UTC 2010

Just some comments (shorter today!) about what was said yesterday:


For the common childhood illnesses that Jon mentioned, for me the presence
of the definite article or not seems to depend on the heaviness of the NP
denoting the illness. At least, I think I would say "I've got the measles"
and "... the mumps" (though the versions with no definite article aren't
absolutely bad, just maybe questionable); however, I don't think I would
say "I've got the whooping-cough" - it would have to be "I've got

Interestingly, though, this distinction seems to be limited to this common
group of childhood illnesses. I couldn't say "I've got the headache", or
use a definite article with other maladies ("I've got (*the) shingles",
"... (*the) cancer", etc) - I'd have to use the version with no definite
article there.


I agree with what William said about 'habituation' dictating whether or not
an article is used, for the locative expressions, at least. But it does
seem to work differently for these illnesses. Possibly it's a bit of a
stretch to apply a 'habituation' argument to them at all, but, if we can do
that in any way, surely the 'habitual' ones would be the ones referred to
by doctors as 'childhood illnesses' (measles, mumps, whooping-cough, German
measles/rubella) - and yet it's precisely the shorter-named ones among
those illnesses where my usage must have a 'the', so, here, 'habitual'
illnesses get a definite article, whereas habitual places don't.


Damien Hall

University of York
Department of Language and Linguistic Science
YO10 5DD

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