Anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier

A Making Light chat about the Demonic Dan Brown leads to a post by the linguist Geoff Pullum about Dan Brown’s opening sentences.

So I learned the proper term for that irritating thing undergrads often do in essays: “Historian Jane Brown says such-as-such”. (Even worse, they sometimes capitalise the word when it’s in the middle of a sentence.)* At least, I find it irritating. It nearly always seems completely irrelevant and besides, even if a specific essay might require the identification of writers by their disciplinary backgrounds, it just feels wrong to leave out the definite article.

The post points to an explanation both of why students do this and why it jars with me: as Pullum points out, it’s a common construction in newspaper articles. He comments that it feels odd in a novel, but I think it feels equally out of place in academic writing. It’s the wrong style.

Or am I just being peculiar?


*Although I find that generally undergrads capitalise words pretty liberally anyway: Early Modern or Eighteenth Century or Capitalism, etc etc. And History, of course. It doesn’t usually bother me that much, but it feels oddly dated.

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10 Responses to Anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier

  1. Aeogae says:

    I ran into capitalisation problems with my PhD. I was capitalising some things, got told not to and then told to by the examiners. Never was sure about History or history.

  2. Sharon says:

    I tend to minimalism. (I wouldn’t normally capitalise history.) But I’d say that the most important thing with a thesis is to be consistent. (The ones I could never make my mind up on were words like Whig, Tory, Protestant.) Well, come to think of it that’s not the most important thing is it? In fact the most important thing is: what the examiners say goes…

  3. rob says:

    You are most certainly not alone. Latest TLS (16/12/2005 p.25) has a review by now less distinguished a histo than Tim Blanning, of Harriet Swain’s (ed.) Big Questions in History, which rants about exactly this. He refers to it as “Timespeak,” which means I guess it even has a name!

    As for your undergrads, all this capitalisation of Nouns seems bizarre. Maybe they’re all German?

  4. Sharon says:

    Rob, I do like that review. And the book sounds well worth buying in spite of the Timespeak. It does seem the complaint is in the context of journalists’ contributions to the book. Thing is, I don’t really mind it in The Times (and other papers). Those writers can’t assume shared knowledge, that a general reader is going to recognise the name of some academic philosopher or historian or whatever, however famous s/he might be in academic circles. (Though that still doesn’t explain why the definite article got dropped…)

  5. Chris Williams says:

    I’ve just taken delivery of the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. It says lower case (and ‘a’, not ‘an’) so so do I.

  6. Sharon says:

    I do believe eb is teasing me. ;) (I don’t know about disapproving but man, it’s really weird to think of the construction being applied to yourself.)

  7. eb says:

    Yeah, I’m just joking, and I’ll admit, I do find it odd to see that construction in the context of for-class writing, since in a history class you generally know who is or is not a historian. But I can understand employing it in public contexts where authors’ professions may not be widely known.

    I wonder about the article, though: “as the historian ____ says” doesn’t seem all that different to me from “as historian ____ says”. Then again, I was never taught grammar formally and I have a history of making this kind of mistake.

  8. Sharon says:

    Truth is, I don’t quite know why the construction with the article feels better – more, well, respectable (? respectful? formal?) than without it. But it definitely does. Hmm.

  9. rob says:

    Try reversing it:

    “Some say the spirit of Christmas has died on the high street. Shop-assistant Sharon Howard disagrees.”

    This seems like a fairly sensible adjectival approach for a popular media article offering soundbites. Compare:

    “Some say the spirit of Christmas has died on the high street. The shop-assistant Sharon Howard disagrees.”

    Reading this, I would think, “Oh, am I supposed to have heard of her?” It’s all in the “the”; the definite article gives us, precisely, definition. In other words, it’s important to be singular in certain contexts, it makes silent semantic sense. (Like alliteration.) And my example alludes to the fact that we expect generic differences between newspaper and journal articles.

    And so, like you say with regard to the Times, it’s all about context. In a recent essay about nineteenth-century France I quoted a labour historian of 20th-cy Britain with the prefix “The British labour historian…” An article I read for the essay brought in “The French theorist Michel de Certeau…” Bringing someone in from a different context, I would personally say it’s OK (although “theorist” is almost always a cop-out, imho); but generally it’s just bloody awkward.

  10. Sharon says:

    Thank you Rob. That’s a great explanation.

    I suppose the sort of essay I had in mind in which specific identifications would be relevant – indeed, necessary – would be one that’s referring to people from more than one field or disciplines and particularly if they’re not obvious references for the topic of the essay; or alternatively one that’s explicitly comparing different disciplinary perspectives and needs to spell out who is who (“the literary scholar X says such and such; but the historian Y says so and so”). But then, not too many undergrads ever manage to do anything that sophisticated anyway.

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