The Grammarphobia Blog

Sick language

Q: I listen to you on WNYC podcasts from Bangkok, Thailand, and appreciate your knowledge and personality. Here’s my question: Is there a rule for using articles with medical conditions? For example, we use an article when we have a stomachache or a cold, but not when we have influenza or pneumonia.

A: When speaking of a specific disease, there’s no need to use an indefinite article (“a” or “an”). Examples: “She has measles and he has mumps. Henry has had both scarlet fever and pneumonia.”

Some people use the definite article (“the”) with certain diseases, which is acceptable, but not necessary: “First she had the measles and then he got the mumps, and now they both have the flu.”

When speaking of symptoms or conditions rather than diseases per se, it’s common to treat them as ordinary nouns and use indefinite articles: “She has a broken leg. We all have a stomachache and a headache. James has an infection.” This is also how we treat a cold: “She’s in bed with a cold.”

Much of the way we treat physical maladies is idiomatic, though. Jaundice is a symptom rather than a disease, yet we say “She has jaundice” (no article) or “She is jaundiced.”

I hope this helps. Thanks for your kind words, and for listening!

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