The Missing Article

By Mark Nichol

Omitting the article the from before the proper name of an organization or a location is a common error—even, surprisingly, in content produced by such entities. In each of the following sentences, the article is awkwardly absent. Discussion and revision of each sentence shows how to resolve the problem (unless there is no problem because of how the name is treated).

1. Young people are increasingly accessing news sources on their phones, according to Pew Research Center.

To test whether an article belongs before a proper name, change the name to a generic reference, such as center in place of “Pew Research Center.” “According to center” does not make sense, so, just as it would be appropriate to insert the before center, insert it before the proper name: “Young people are increasingly accessing news sources on their phones, according to the Pew Research Center.”

If the proper name modified a following noun, however, as in the following sentence, no article is required: “Young people are increasingly accessing news sources on their phones, according to Pew Research Center staff.” (The is optional if the staff have already been referred to.)

2. Heavens Gate cult committed mass suicides in California in 1997.

The same test is appropriate in a reference such as this one. “Cult committed mass suicide in California in 1997” works as a headline (where articles are often omitted) but not as a sentence, so insert the before the proper name: “The Heavens Gate cult committed mass suicide in California in 1997.”

However, in this case, strictly speaking, the cult members, not the cult, committed suicide, so this revision is better: “Heavens Gate cult members committed mass suicide in California in 1997.” (Here, because the subject refers to individuals, not a single entity, the test isn’t required, but the article should be included if the members have already been mentioned earlier.)

3. Spice Girls topped the music charts seven times.

References to groups of performers should be treated the same way, but only if the name refers to the individuals: “The Spice Girls topped the music charts seven times.” Again, the article is not required if the name modifies a plural noun, as in “Spice Girls songs topped the music charts seven times.”

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18 Responses to “The Missing Article”

  • venqax

    How does this work when the article is part of the title? E.g. compare the TV shows, The Office and Breaking Bad. We would say something about, “the Breaking Bad episode where such and such happened”, but we would not say, “the The Office episode where something happened.” Is that just idiomatic or does an actual rule apply that says an article in a title can do “double duty,” so to speak?

    Also, on different issue, but maybe one related to the use of the article in a title or name: I have read somewhere (here maybe?), why it is fine to say, “the Rolling Stones are playing in Denver”, and “the Rolling Stones isa rock and roll band”, but it is not okay (let alone preferable) to say, “the Rolling Stones is playing in Denver”– even though that last one would seem to be grammatically correct, regardless of sounding illiterate.

  • venqax

    Coincidence of awareness: The next thing I read after this DWT entry was an article that started off like this:

    “The researchers at the Georgia Tech have found out a way to use your phone…

    So guess the don’t over-article is a worthwhile the caution, too.

  • Mark Nichol

    Strictly speaking, yes, one would refer to a specific episode of The Office by writing, for example, “Remember the Office episode in which Jim pops the fitness ball Dwight is using as a chair?” Admittedly, that treatment looks strange, so I would write, “That episode of The Office in which . . . .”

    Regarding band names, the convention is to treat collective names in the plural and entity names in the singular: “The Rolling Stones are . . .,” but “Led Zeppelin is . . . .”

  • Caitlin

    I think what you’re talking about, Venqax, is slightly different. Using ‘the’ ahead of Breaking Bad episode refers to the episode, not the breaking bad.

    I guess, Mark, you reason that if it’s a center, it needs an article. By my understanding, Center is part of the name and doesn’t stand alone as a noun—it is ‘fused’ with Pew Research. We might have The Donald, but we don’t have the Mark, the Venqax, and the Caitlin.

    In my summaries writing work I treated proper nouns as they treated themselves: if The was part of their name, I used The. If It wasn’t, I didn’t.

  • venqax

    @Mark Nichol: So then “the RS is a rock band” would not be okay, either. Ok.

    @Caitlin: Regardless, the “the” before The Office refers to the episode, too. The question isn’t about that, it’s about whether you have to include the the before The Office when there is already a the in the title. Man, grammar check doesn’t like that sentence at all!

    Of course the solution, as MN said, is simply to reword the sentence to avoid the issue completely. I was simply wondering if there was “rule” or convention regarding it. Whenever rewording is the only solution, it reminds me of the old joke, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” To which the doctor replies, “Then don’t do that.” It resolves the instance, but doesn’t address the issue.

  • Caitlin

    Venqax: Gotcha about the “the The Office episode” problem (!!!!) But that’s quite a different matter to the the other proper name you mentioned–Breaking Bad–and whether or not it should take an article.

    Clearly, when referring to the series itself, Breaking Bad does not take an article; ‘Breaking Bad’ is the full name. Putting ‘the’ ahead of Breaking Bad occurs only when another common noun [ex ‘episode’] follows. So, it becomes, The […] episode. Never, ‘the Breaking Bad’.

    I would agree with Mark’s account if Pew Research was the name, and it ‘described’ the common noun, centre. This is analogous to ‘the Breaking Bad episode’. But ‘Centre’ is part of the proper noun, unlike episode is for Breaking Bad.

    I also disagree that we should treat the Rolling Stones as plural–the Rolling Stones is ONE band (as is Led Zeppelin), not SOME stones. I’d happily say, ‘The Rolling Stoneses are…’ if there were several bands named The Rolling Stones. But ‘Stones’ is still singular, in much the same way that the Dutch name ‘Neils’ is a singular of Neils and not a plural of Neil.

  • Thebluebird11

    Sigh.
    AFA the Rolling Stones (and are they THE Rolling Stones, or just Rolling Stones?), I would use a plural, because they are often called The Stones, so “The Stones are gonna be in concert” is what I would say. Now for example, what about Hootie and the Blowfish? That is one band, and there is nobody in there called Hootie or (the) Blowfish. And what about Eurhythmics? There is no “the.” So you have to say “Eurhythmics are coming to the arena.”
    Anyway, whatever. I think whatever sounds right to one’s ears, in these band cases, is fine. Tomato, to-mah-to. Ne importa.
    What this post reminds me of is an occasion when it WAS important…I was on a cruise, participating in a music trivia contest, in which the DJ played a snippet of music and each team was supposed to identify the name of the song and the artist. Since I am “old” (or at least I was older than everyone else on my motley team), I was able to instantly “name that tune” when they played “Little Willie,” by……….(drum roll)….Sweet. Not “THE” Sweet, just Sweet. UNFORTUNATELY for the team and for me, I was not the one writing these things down, and the person who was doing that wrote down “The Sweet” (even though I did not say the “the”). Can you believe that some petty folks on another team made a huge fuss over this (my my!!), hollering that it is not THE Sweet, and therefore our team should not be allotted the points for that answer. The DJ agreed with them, and although our team won anyway (by a mile), I needed those few extra points to collect enough Dam Dollars (this was on the Holland America cruise line, and a lot of their ships end with -dam), so that I could trade them in for a Dam Towel! (The ending to this story is that I was later able to charm the DJ into awarding me the few extra Dam Dollars and I did get my Dam Towel!) 🙂

  • Caitlin

    True, Thebluebird11, The Rolling Stones band is often referred to as The Stones, but not, as you say, because of the article ‘the’ (Think ‘The Donald’ or the White House) but because the band consists of several members. Led Zeppelin the band is often to referred to in the plural, too, for the same reason. Ditto Hootie and the Blowfish.

    In fact, many singular groups or organisation are referred to at times in the plural (for the fact that they are made up by multiple people). This is a matter of convenience rather than technicality.

  • venqax

    But Mark did address this, right?:

    “Regarding band names, the convention is to treat collective names in the plural and entity names in the singular.”

    The Rolling Stones is a plural configuration, so the Rolling Stones are.
    Led Zepplin is singular so, so Led Zepplin is

    That makes sense and answers the question, even if it is simply a convention and not necessarily a “law” of grammar. So to say the Rolling Stones is (they are a single group) or Led Zepplin are (it is a group of multiple people) doing something would not be, technically, grammatically wrong but it does violate that convention. It’s simply an extension of treating terms that are not proper nouns, but raise the same issue. E.g. you should say “the team is practicing”, not are; the band is playing, not are; the jury is unanimous, not are.

    A names that is not even a noun really, like Sweet, does create some additional problem because whether it’s plural or singular is undefined. It’s almost like rock music people are rebels.

  • Caitlin

    Venqax, I’m disappointed you take that view because I usually agree with you and I don’t on this.

    Surely it is logical to treat The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin as two proper names. As a proper name, The Rolling Stones is singular. As is Led Zeppelin. The pluralising ‘s’ a the end of Rolling Stone should not make plural entities of a sngle entity (the—single—band called the Rolling Stones).

    Thebluebird was addressing something very different: the convention of calling groups of people that have a single name (such as Led Zep) plural (‘they are playing…). This has nithing to do with articles or plurals n the name however.

  • Caitlin

    ‘The Rolling Stones is a plural configuration, so the Rolling Stones are.’

    So how about ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Is that plural because of the plural construction of Grapes? Nope. Grapes is part of the proper name, of ONE book.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, there is a big difference between the usage in North America and the usage in Great Britain and Ireland. In British writing, I see THINGS like “Led Zeppelin are”, “Fleetwood Mac are”, “the RAF are”, “Rolls Royce are”, “British Aerospace are”, “the government are”, “Manchester Arsenal are”, “Harrods are”, and so forth, all the Time. I have mentioned this to some British people before, and I gave the specific example that they should say and write “the Commonwealth are”. A very nice Scotsman wrote me back and told me that he had NEVER seen or heard “the Commonwealth are”. Thank goodness, and thanks to my correspondent!
    I have mentioned that the British usually do not know what a “collective noun is”, for example “the United States is”, but then he wrote me back INSTANTLY to argue about what the meaning of “collective noun” is. He did not seem to understand that by definition, all collective nouns are singular, as in “The United Arab Emirates is a country along the Persian Gulf”, and “the family of the Kennedys” is a well-known one in the USA.
    Of course, in North America “family” is a collective noun, and we use “the family is” over here. A British person wrote that this way of using “family is” was absolutely grating on his ears and mind, because he was so accustomed to “the family are”.
    Mr. Nichol is absolutely right about the convention of breaking this by mentioning things like “The Yardbirds were”, “The Beatles were”, and “The Grateful Dead were”, but in North America, we say “CSN&Y was one of the best bands ever”, treating “CSN&Y” as a collective noun. Likewise, we say “Fleetwood Mac is”, but the British probably say “Fleetwood Mac are”. This is pointed difference, especially because for most of its existence, Fleetwood Mac has been about a half British and half American band. Notice that I wrote “its existence” and not “their existence” because “Fleetwood Mac” is a collective noun, and therefore “Fleetwood Mac” is singular, even in its pronoun form. We even say “Fleetwood Mac is partially composed of the Buckingham Nicks”, and “The Buckingham Nicks has long been a part of Fleetwood Mac”. (Not “The Buckingham Nicks have”.)
    Oh well, millions of people have discarded the notion that singular pronouns go with singular nouns, and plural pronouns go with plural nouns, but I never will. Also, part of the reason for that problem with singular and plural is that so many people do not know anymore what singular or plural nouns are anymore. Thus, these people feel free to use plural pronouns like “they”, “them”, and “their” with ALL nouns.

  • Dale A. Wood

    As venqax mentioned, common nouns such as {band, crew, team, jury} are all collective nouns and therefore singular in North America, and I mention “family” and “staff”, but British writing and speech is full of “the band are”, “the crew are”, “the family are”, “the jury are”, “the staff are”, and “the team are”.
    Part of the reason for this is the unwillingness to be precise and say “the members of the crew”, “the members of the family”, “the men and women of the jury” (assuming that it was composed of both sexes. Otherwise, omit one.), “the people of the staff”, and “the members of the staff”.
    A British practice that has been heard in North America via British or Irish documentary TV programs is “the team decided”. That is truly impossible because it should be either “the leader of the team” or “the leadership of the team” because it is very unlikely that the members of the team were unanimous – and also because some of the members probably just went along with the leadership rather than disagree openly. Also, a team has many different brains in it, but it takes one brain, or a subset of brains working together, to make a decision.
    British journalists also write things like “Manchester are in a fistfight with Birmingham,” and they did not even mention that sports teams were involved or what sport it was. I think that they just assume that “everybody knows” that they are referring to the members of the respective football (soccer) teams, or else rugby teams.
    In North America, we are much more careful than that when we write “The members of the American ice hockey team are in a fistfight with the members of the Canadian team”, “The members of the American lacrosse team are in a rowdy game with the members of the Canadian team”, and “The members of the Toronto Blue Jays are in a loud shouting match with the players of the New York Yankees.”
    We do mention what sport it was, and who was doing what with whom.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I also believe that part of the language problem lies in the unwillingness nowadays for many people to compose and use their own prepositional phrases, and to use the right prepositions.
    To give you a specific example, 200 years ago there was the “War of 1812” and not the “1812 War”. Longer ago, there was “The War of the Roses” and not “The Roses War”.
    There were “The Articles of Confederation” and “The Eight Wives of Henry VIII”, and not “Henry VIII’s Eight Wives”.
    There was “20,000 Leagues beneath the Sea” (with “beneath” being a preposition). and not “The Sea 20,000 Leagues Underneath”, which also mangles the meaning. Jules Verne also wrote a novel whose title in English is “From the Earth to the Moon”. Wow, nothing but two prepositional phrases in a row, by that translator, and someone else can explain to me what it was like in the original French. “Five Weeks in a Balloon”, and not “Balloonborne Five Weeks”.
    Not too many decades ago, there was the movie “Something about Mary”, and not “What is Mary about?”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @venqax: Rather than “Rolling Stones is (they are a single group)”, you should write “Rolling Stones is (it is a single group)”, please.

  • Thebluebird11

    Clearly, this discussion defies logic. I cannot speak for people on the other side of the pond, as they say. I can only speak as an American. All the grammar rules in the world are irrelevant if people are going to do what comes naturally and sounds best to their ears. So it is irrelevant that the Stones or Led Zep are made up of several people. They are going to say “The Stones are” and “Led Zep is.” They are going to say “The Kennedy family is,” but “The Dead Kennedys are.” If it’s different in Britain and some things grate on their ears, so be it, and the feeling is mutual but survivable and trivial. The discussion is academic, and I guess if someone is writing for a professional publication, then the publication may have guidelines for how to treat these collective nouns, in which case I suppose the writer needs to follow those guidelines. For anybody who is just speaking conversationally or writing in their own blog, they’re going to do whatever they want to do.

  • venqax

    “Clearly, this discussion defies logic.” Yes, because we are talking about idiom, or convention as Mark called it, which is almost by definition illogical. Think of the arguments favoring treating “none” as plural, which — makes no logical sense at all. Or “they” as singular for the gender-oversensitve.
    I am not saying (Caitlin) that I think it is grammatically assailable to say “the Rolling Stones is playing tonight.” The Rolling Stones IS a single entity, as well as a group of individuals. But it sounds and reads odd. It is idiomatically off. Just like saying it’s “someone’s else opinion” instead of “someone else’s”. I think that is what MN was saying, not to put words on his page. At the same time, saying Led Zeppelin is or are sound interchangeable. That, to me, is not okay. If the convention goes one way, it has to go the other way too, IMO. So you must use Led Zeppelin is under the ”collective names in the plural and entity names in the singular” convention.

    @bluebird: But people do say “the Kennedy family are” or “the jury are still out.” To set a rule seems prudent. To say you can use either is or are does not. It seems sloppy, actually, not that people won’t still do it. But people also say “I didn’t do nothing”, “My arm is broke”, “I had went to the store”, and “here he come again”. What people are going to say doesn’t say much about proper language.

  • Thebluebird11

    @venqax: I don’t know, I always have heard and said “The jury is out.” “Jury” is a collective noun, like “family” and “staff,” which I believe are treated as single units. OTOH, you have “family members,” “staff members,” etc, and in that case they are treated as plural. So, “Our staff is available to help you,” but “Our staff members are available to help you.”
    I mean, you can set rules (prescriptivism) all you want, but people will go with what sounds right to their ears, and that is why these days we are accepting the use of their/they even if he/she/it were the words to use “by the rule” in the past. So now we are OK with saying things like “Everybody will get their ticket at the door” and “Nobody said they liked the cake.” It may not be grammatically correct by old standards, but it seems to be just fine now. And at this point, I’m not fighting it. Everybody has his/her/their own peeves, and this is not particularly one of mine!

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