The Grammarphobia Blog

The El Niño problem

Q: Can you discuss the double-article problem that occurs when “the” is added to a phrase beginning with a definite article in another language? I am bothered to read or hear things like “The El Niño weather pattern is building.”

A: Technically, you’re right: “the” plus “El” does add up to “the the” when translated literally. But when a foreign phrase is established in English, the foreign article often isn’t translated literally—that is, interpreted as a separate instance of “the.”

In our opinion, “El Niño” has been assimilated and the Spanish term for the weather phenomenon can be used with an English definite article (as in “The El Niño weather pattern was blamed for the drought”). We’ll have more to say about this term later. First, a little background.

When a proper noun in a foreign language includes an article, the general practice is to use either the foreign article or “the,” but not both.

So in each set of examples below, you could use either version:

“They sang ‘La Marseillaise’ and marched to l’Arc de Triomphe” … “They sang the ‘Marseillaise’ and marched to the Arc de Triomphe.”

“La Costa Brava is our favorite region of Spain” … “The Costa Brava is our favorite region of Spain.”

“Don’t miss El Museo del Barrio” … “Don’t miss the Museo del Barrio.”

“We heard Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth” … “We heard the Meistersinger at Bayreuth.”

In cases like those, it would be redundant to use both the English and the foreign article (“the ‘La Marseillaise’ ” … “the Die Meistersinger,” and so on). This is because ordinarily the foreign article is interpreted as meaning “the,” even in an English context.

As The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) says, “An initial the may be used if the definite article would appear in the original language.” Its examples include this one: “A history of the Comédie-Française has just appeared.”

There are exceptions, however, such as with the names of foreign newspapers. The Chicago Manual recommends that the foreign article should be retained if the newspaper’s name includes it.

The examples given include “El País” in Madrid, “Il Messagero” in Rome, “La Crónica de Hoy” in Mexico City, and “Al Akhbar” in Cairo. Each includes an article equivalent to “the.”

So, for instance, one would write, “He subscribes to Le Monde,” not “He subscribes to the Monde” (and definitely not “the Le Monde”).

And as we’ve said, a foreign article often isn’t treated as an actual article when a term of foreign origin becomes part of the English language. A few obvious examples are the Spanish names Los Angeles (literally, “the angels”) and Las Vegas (“the meadows”), and the French name for the game of lacrosse (“the stick”).

Despite their foreign derivations, and despite the literal meaning of los and las and la, these names have become thoroughly English and are used with English articles if an article is needed (“the Los Angeles Dodgers,” “the Las Vegas casino,” etc.).

We’re reminded of “the hoi polloi,” an expression that’s generally accepted by usage writers even though “hoi” represents “the.” The expression, whether two words or three, means “the masses” or “the common man” in English, and comes from οἱ πολλοί, classical Greek for “the many.”

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “the three-word phrase has spread since about 1850, has become common, and ought to be accepted.”

Jeremy Butterfield, writing in the fourth edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, says “the hoi polloi” has “an impressive literary pedigree,” and leaving out the English article may be interpreted as “linguistic snobbery, misguided pedantry, or even unwholesome one-upmanship.”

Interestingly, the expression first showed up in English as “the οἱ πολλοὶ.” In a 1668 essay on dramatic poetry, John Dryden writes: “If by the people you understand the multitude, the οἱ πολλοὶ, it is no matter what they think; they are sometimes in the right, sometimes in the wrong: their judgment is a mere lottery.”

The first few examples for “hoi polloi” in the Oxford English Dictionary combine the English article with the original Greek phrase. The earliest OED citation for the Greek phrase written with the English alphabet also includes the English article.

In Gleanings in Europe by an American (1837), James Fenimore Cooper writes that a few great men lead every honorary institution “after which the oi polloi are enrolled as they can find interest.”

Getting back to the weather, we think “El Niño” has become so familiar in English that the foreign article has been absorbed into the name and has lost its separate sense of “the.”

We haven’t found much guidance on this issue, but judging from published examples, the “El” of “El Niño” is virtually never interpreted as a separate “the” in an English context. “El Niño” is treated as a phrasal noun for a weather phenomenon.

The New York Times’s stylebook is ambiguous on the subject, but it’s clear that Times editors don’t interpret “El” as “the.” We say this because Times articles have included phrases like “an El Niño,” “there was no El Niño,” “another El Niño,” “this new El Niño,” “a strong El Niño,” “the recent El Niño,” and “an El Niño year.”

If the Spanish article were being interpreted literally as “the,” those noun phrases would mean “a the Niño,” “there was no the Niño,” “another the Niño,” and so on. If there were any chance of such an interpretation, the editors would have omitted the foreign article (“a Niño,” “there was no Niño,” “another Niño”).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has several examples in which the Spanish article clearly isn’t being interpreted as a separate “the.” These include “the El Niño,” “the El Nino effect” and “the last five El Niños.” The dictionary doesn’t describe the examples as nonstandard or unusual in any way.

Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard dictionary, also cites many examples of the three-word expression without reservation: “the El Niño weather pattern” … “the El Niño phenomenon” … “the El Niño climatic conditions,” and so on.

Popular science publications, too, are willing to use English articles with these climate terms.

We’ve found examples in Scientific American of “the El Niño,” “the El Niño cycle,” “an El Niño,” “an El Niño event,” “the most recent El Niño,” “the last El Niño,” and “one of the strongest El Niños.”

And in Science magazine, you’ll find “the El Niño,” “an El Niño,” “this El Niño,” “the current El Niño,” “a strong El Niño event,” “the 1997–1998 El Niño,” and so on.

There’s less of this in academic journals, which tend to use “the El Niño Southern Oscillation” on first reference and “ENSO” on subsequent references. The longer technical name reflects the fact that El Niño results from an oscillation of atmospheric pressure in the tropical Pacific Ocean basin.

In Spanish, el niño means “the child.” The weather phenomenon is named for the Christ child, since its warmest sea surface temperatures off the South American coast are often recorded around Christmas.

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