Why does it sound OK to talk about the Jefferson Airplane but not the Led Zeppelin?
Several times on this podcast, we’ve talked about the word the. In episode 224, we said that usually the definite article doesn’t go with proper nouns. That’s why my friends and family call me Mignon, and not The Mignon. For some proper nouns, though, it’s not so clear. Why do we have The Velvet Underground, but not The Led Zeppelin? And are the reasons for shortening The Ukraine and The Congo to just Ukraine and Congo, the same reasons that some journalists are reporting on Central African Republic? Stay tuned, as we take a closer look at the word the, and how it behaves with bands, brands, and foreign lands.
A general rule about band names and the definite article is that plural band names that suggest that they refer to the individual band members tend to get a the. It’s easiest to explain with an example. Let’s take the nominal phrase Exploding Pickle. Now suppose that Squiggly, Aardvark, and Fenster have formed a band and named it the Exploding Pickles. This name suggests that Squiggly is an Exploding Pickle, as are Aardvark and Fenster. Not literally, of course, but in a figurative way: We have to redefine the phrase Exploding Pickle so that it means “any member of the set made up of Squiggly, Aardvark, and Fenster.” The definite article emphasizes that these are the only Exploding Pickles.
Band names that don’t suggest they’re referring to the members of the band, don’t get carelessly prefaced with the so much.
This rule also explains why speakers tend to add the to some band names that don’t already have it, but not to others. Article-free bands such as Eagles and Talking Heads began to appear in the 1970s. But these bands, and later ones, such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, often end up with a the in front of their name anyway, because you imagine that each member of these bands is an Eagle, a Talking Head, or a Red Hot Chili Pepper. I’m not saying it’s cool to be careless with a band’s name by adding the definite article when they don’t want it; I am saying that if you’re confused, it’s their fault, not yours.
Likewise, plural-noun band names that don’t suggest they’re referring to the members of the band, don’t get carelessly prefaced with the so much. For example, some commenters on a Language Log post suggest that speakers rarely put a the before the names Barenaked Ladies and Dire Straits because these names don’t suggest that each band member is a bare-naked lady (they’re all men), or a dire strait (because the idiom dire straits doesn’t refer to actual straits).
What about those singular band names, though, like The Velvet Underground or Led Zeppelin? This was actually the question that got me started on this episode. When I was in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, I had coffee with Penn Jillette, who, in addition to being half of the incredible magician duo Penn and Teller, likes to talk about grammar. He wondered why a sentence like “I went to see the Jefferson Airplane” sounds OK, but “I like the Led Zeppelin” doesn’t, and other band names work with or without the definite article. When he said this, I was thinking, “the Jefferson Airplane”? I didn’t know until I did a Google search that people actually said this, or at least, they used to.
The bottom line is that fans are likely to think a band name should have the in the name if they view the name as describing the members rather than being collective.
Returning to our example, suppose that Squiggly, Aardvark, and Fenster have named their band The Exploding Pickle. This name suggests that the entire band is figuratively an exploding pickle, and that only one such pickle exists. I believe this is how some of the singular-noun bands that began to appear in the late 1960s were regarded, and that this is why you can find mentions of bands such as the Jefferson Airplane or the Buffalo Springfield in books, newspapers, and magazines of the time.
On the other hand, suppose that our three musicians have formed a band and named their band just Exploding Pickle. In this case, Exploding Pickle is just the name of the band, and that’s it. There’s no metaphor step in between. The fact that the name is a noun isn’t even relevant, since you could take any kind of phrase and use it as a name. For example, They Might Be Giants is a sentence, and Of Monsters and Men is a prepositional phrase, but they’re also both band names. This seems to be the more usual way to think of singular band names these days, and I suspect it’s why some of those singular-noun band names, such as Jefferson Airplane, that used to have a definite article have lost it now.
The bottom line is that fans are likely to think a band name should have the in the name if they view the name as describing the members rather than being collective. In other words, we probably don’t call it The Led Zeppelin because we simply think of Led Zeppelin as the name of the band, and don't think of it as describing the band, but we probably do call them The Eagles because we’d say “Don Henley is an Eagle.”
Moving on to brand names, an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2011 noted that many brands, especially those involving high technology, are moving away from the definite article. It observes that Facebook used to be The Facebook, and the makers of the Kindle, the Blackberry, and the Wii all refuse to use the definite article with these names. One reason for doing this is to save space and characters in Web addresses and tweets, but another reason, according to two marketing experts quoted in the article, amounts to the idea that a singular count noun without an article sounds like something more personal than a mere object or corporation.
As for foreign lands, we covered this in episode 322, another episode on the definite article. One rule we stated is that is that if the name of the country includes a common noun, such as “state” or “kingdom,” then the name takes the definite article, just the way we expect definite count nouns to do. So that’s why we have, for example, the United States and the United Kingdom.
The confusing cases involve the definite article before places such as Gambia or Ukraine. Here’s what we said in episode 322:
[M]any countries whose names derive from important geographical features take a definite article. For example, “the Philippines” refers to the Philippine islands, “the Gambia” refers to the Gambia River, and “the Netherlands” literally means “the lowlands.”
We also noted that in the case of Ukraine, use of the definite article in English writing was even taken to be an insult after its independence from Russia in 1993. The “geographical feature” rule was so well-established that even though it’s not certain that the word “Ukraine” ever referred to a geographic feature, referring to it as “The Ukraine” seemed to suggest it was just a geographic region of a larger place, not a nation unto itself.
Recently I’ve noticed that in stories about an incipient civil war in one African nation, some sources refer to it as “the Central African Republic,” while others say “Central African Republic.” I wonder if some hypercorrection is going on here. This is what happens when, for example, speakers are corrected numerous times for saying “you and me” when it’s nonstandard grammar, and mistakenly conclude that it’s always wrong. As a result, they now say “you and I” even when that’s nonstandard grammar. Some journalists may have concluded that it’s always politically incorrect to use “the” in front of African or Asian country names.
All this analysis will get you only so far. Exceptions still exist, and at some point, all you can do is note that some names take a the, and others don’t. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language handles the matter by just proposing some vocabulary to refer to this fact. It calls proper nouns that require the definite article “weak proper nouns,” and those that do not, “strong proper nouns.” And with that in mind, this is Grammar Girl, not “the” Grammar Girl, saying thanks for listening.
This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in Linguistics, blogs at LiteralMinded.Wordpress.com and is a regular columnist for the online resource Visual Thesaurus.
1. Dale W. Eisinger. “The Definite Article.” Maura Magazine, March 14, 2013. http://www.maura.com/618/the-definite-article
4. “The New Rock.” Life Magazine, June 28, 1968. Special section. http://books.google.com/books?id=xlQEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA52&dq=%22the%20jefferson%20airplane%22&pg=PA52#v=onepage&q=%22the%20jefferson%20airplane%22&f=false
5. Joan Didion. Slouching Toward Bethlehem. 1968. p. 101. http://books.google.com/books?id=b52ydzr3KFsC&lpg=PA101&dq=%22the%20buffalo%20springfield%22&pg=PA101#v=onepage&q=%22the%20buffalo%20springfield%22&f=false
6. Geoffrey A. Fowler, Yukari Iwatani Kane. “An Article of Faith for Marketers: Place No Faith in Articles.” The Wall Street Journal. September 12, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424053111903895904576546910525327024
7. Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. 2002. pp. 517ff.