The Grammarphobia Blog

TEACHER IS NOT A LEPER

Q: In the opening sequence of The Simpsons, Bart writes sentences like these on the chalkboard: “TEACHER’S DIET IS WORKING,” “I WILL NOT MOCK TEACHER’S OUTDATED CELL PHONE,” and “TEACHER IS NOT A LEPER.” The absence of “the” before “teacher” here sounds odd to me. How would you describe this usage?

A: The dropping of articles before nouns is, among other things, a characteristic of young children’s speech—children a lot younger than 10-year-old Bart. The show’s writers are having him use baby or toddler language to humorous effect.

This usage isn’t limited to children, however. A receptionist in a medical office may say, “Doctor will see you now.” We suspect, though, that even here the receptionist is using toddler talk—that is, treating the patient like a child, whether consciously or not.

Interestingly, studies of how children acquire language show that this phenomenon of article-dropping occurs in many languages, not just English.

For example, the linguist Sergio Baauw, in a study of Spanish and Dutch children, has noted their “frequent omission of functional elements” in speech.

Until around the age of three, he writes in Grammatical Features and the Acquisition of Reference, children often omit articles “in contexts where they are obligatory in the adult language.”

In another study, The Dissociation Between Grammar and Pragmatics, the linguists Jeannette Schaeffer, Aviya Hacohen, and Arielle Bernstein note that “in an experimental setting, English-acquiring children drop articles around 10% between the ages of 2 and 3. By the age of 3, they no longer drop articles.”

Of course “article drop,” the term linguists use for this phenomenon, isn’t limited to children’s speech. Headline writers drop definite and indefinite articles all the time.

In fact, the linguist Andrew Weir has written a paper on this very subject: “Article Drop in English Headlinese.”

And the adult use of articles before nouns can differ depending on which side of the Atlantic one lives on. Americans recover from surgery “in the hospital” while the British do their recovery “in hospital.”

We discussed this usage distinction a few years ago in an extensive posting about differences between American and British English.

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