Illnesses [branch of Omission of definite article]

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Thu Jan 21 14:35:21 UTC 2010


I wonder whether, as I think Arnold suggested, one can draw any
conclusions at all.

Specificity (a particular disease) vs. generality (group of illnesses)?  But --

I would say "I have the measles / mumps /shingles"; and in contrast
to Damian, I would also say "I've got the whooping-cough".  On the
other hand, I would *not* say "I have the diphtheria / smallpox / polio".
I would not say "I have the cancer" -- but that makes some sense:
there are too many kinds of cancer.

A plural form (but taking the singular) where there is also a count
noun?  Does "I have measles / mumps / shingles" (without "the") mean
"I have measles spots / mumps swellings / shingles blotches" (more than one)?

Did people used to say "I have flu" when the distinction between the
various types was not recognized?  And now generally say "I have the
flu" because they and their hearers will think "the variety of flu
that's prevalent at the moment"?  On the other hand, today both "the
seasonal cold flu" and "the H1N1 flue" are running around.

Presence of an adjective, making the illness specific?  For example,
do people say "I have the German measles" (my usage), or "I have
German measles"?

Wishing everyone good health and the absence of such linguistic conundrums,

At 1/21/2010 06:15 AM, Damien Hall wrote:
>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
>Tel. (office) +44 (0)1904 432665
>     (mobile) +44 (0)771 853 5634
>Fax  +44 (0)1904 432673
>The American Dialect Society -

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