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British Readers: Help Me Understand Your Idea of the Definite Article

Posted By Brian Phillips On March 2, 2009 @ 3:56 pm In Uncategorized | 43 Comments

Here’s a question I’m hoping a British reader, or at least one with a grasp of British English, can help me with: What’s the implication of dropping the definite article before plural team nicknames? I mean the habit of saying “Liverpool are hosting Wolves this weekend” rather than “Liverpool are hosting the Wolves this weekend.”

This is (obviously) not the standard usage in American English, which probably has to do both with differences in the language and with differences in the conception of sports teams’ identities. The team nickname is almost always a formally requisite element of an American sports team’s name, and is usually a plural noun meant to metaphorically characterize the members of the team. The name “the Dallas Cowboys” implies a team of (metaphoric) cowboys based in Dallas, so they can be referred to in brief as “the Cowboys,” with the definite article delimiting the group of cowboys that make up the team.

With British teams, nicknames tend to be rarer and more informal, and often drop the definite article completely: Wolverhampton are known as “Wolves” (but not “the Wolves”) Tottenham Hotspur are known as “Spurs” (but not “the Spurs”), etc. (This isn’t universal, however, since it doesn’t seem to apply to nicknames like “the Gunners” or “the Blues.”) To American ears, using the nickname without the article suggests an unknown or undifferentiated quantity: if you saw zombies swarming up the front lawn, you would cry, “Zombies are swarming up the front lawn!” in the same way that you might cry “Rovers are swarming toward our six-yard box!” But then, assuming there was only one group of zombies, you would quickly start adding the article (“My God, the zombies are eating Fido!”), which never seems to happen for Blackburn.

So what’s going on with that? Is it a sort of diminutive, like an affectionate continuation of the name-shortening that usually creates nicknames in the first place? Is it meant to denote an institutional quality, like “in hospital” or “at university,” other nouns for which British English eliminates the article and American English doesn’t? It seems to happen mostly with nicknames that are very old and established, so does it suggest a kind of  deep-rootedness? Or is it just one of those arbitrary areas where British and American senses of definiteness inexplicably diverge (you say “in future” where we say “in the future,” we say “tell time” where you say “tell the time,” and so on)?

There’s no judgment implied by any of this; I’m just curious about the custom, and I’m sure I’m not the only American soccer fan who’s wondered about it. (Particularly since I, like almost every American soccer blogger, follow the usage whether I understand it or not.) So help me out, and together we can build a bridge of understanding just in time for English to collapse into a series of text-messaging conventions.


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