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Why Some Band Names Take "The" and Others Don't

Why does it sound OK to talk about the Jefferson Airplane but not the Led Zeppelin?

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #398

Brands

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. 

Foreign Lands

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.

References

1. Dale W. Eisinger. “The Definite Article.” Maura Magazine, March 14, 2013. http://www.maura.com/618/the-definite-article

2. Garrett Wollman. “Ambiguously Arthrous Band Names.” Language Log. June 16, 2013. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4776. See comments.

3. Ibid.

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.

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