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‘The coronavirus’ or ‘coronavirus’?

Q: It’s everywhere but how do we say it? It’s “a coronavirus,” but many people refer to it as “the coronavirus.” It seems obvious that we shouldn’t use the definite article. We also need to consider that the virus is actually SARS-CoV-2.

A: Scientists and the general population often use different terms for the same thing. In fact, scientists themselves often use a clipped form of a cumbersome technical term.

The name of the virus, “SARS-CoV-2,” for example, is an abbreviated version of “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.” And the name of the disease, “Covid-19,” is short for “coronavirus disease 2019” (the year it emerged).

However, in general, nontechnical English, as you’ve noticed, the disease and the pathogen that causes it are often referred to as “the coronavirus.”

We see this as simply an elliptical, or shortened, way of saying “the new [or novel or 2019] coronavirus.” Using the article makes the noun particular, so that it means the one of current concern.

Neither the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, nor any standard dictionary comments specifically on the use of articles with the noun.

However, (based on the old Random House Unabridged) consistently uses “the coronavirus” in an explanatory essay: “a pandemic like the coronavirus” … “words related to the coronavirus” … “the difference between the coronavirus and the plague,” and so on.

You have to recognize that the nontechnical usage is still a work in progress. News organizations have reported on the current pandemic for only a few months, sometimes using “the coronavirus” and sometimes only “coronavirus.”

A search of newspaper and news agency archives suggests that we’re now seeing a preference for “the.” In the April 25 edition of the New York Times, for instance, we found many more noun uses of “the coronavirus” than just “coronavirus.” Here’s a small sampling:

“deaths linked to the coronavirus” … “the coronavirus has added danger” … “without catching the coronavirus” … “died of complications of the coronavirus” … “the fallout of the coronavirus” … “the fight against the coronavirus” … how the coronavirus behaves.”

As you know, there are dozens of pathogens called coronaviruses, and different ones cause different diseases, also called coronaviruses. These illnesses range from the common cold to SARS and now Covid-19.

When people use the term “coronavirus,” it’s often difficult to tell which is meant, the disease or the virus. But in most cases that makes little practical difference.

Again we’re talking here about nontechnical English, as opposed to the more specific terms used in scientific language (which we’ll get to in a moment). But nontechnical doesn’t mean nonstandard English.

Nearly all American and British dictionaries recognize “coronavirus” as standard English for a virus of this kind. And two of them have recently expanded their definitions to include a disease caused by such a virus.

Right now there are entries for “coronavirus” in nine out of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult. All nine (five American and four British) define it as a noun meaning one of the family of viruses known as coronaviruses.

And two (one American, one British) add that it also means a disease caused by one of those viruses. Here, for instance, are Merriam-Webster’s definitions for “coronavirus”:

“1: any of a family (Coronaviridae) of single-stranded RNA viruses that have a lipid envelope studded with club-shaped projections, infect birds and many mammals including humans, and include the causative agents of MERS, SARS, and COVID-19.”

“2: an illness caused by a coronavirus, especially COVID-19.”

The British dictionary Macmillan also has both definitions. For #2, it says the word appears “in general use to refer to the disease Covid-19 that is caused by a novel type of coronavirus.”

We expect that as time goes by, more standard dictionaries will recognize definition #2, with “coronavirus” meaning a disease, especially Covid-19. (On our blog, we capitalize only the “C,” as do many news organizations, including the New York Times.)

For now, the OED has only the virus definition. Its entry was last updated in 2008.

Oxford defines “coronavirus,” as “any member of the genus Coronavirus of enveloped, single-stranded RNA viruses which have prominent projections from the envelope and are pathogens of humans, other mammals, and birds, typically causing gastrointestinal, respiratory, or neurological disease.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a scientific report in the journal Nature (Nov. 16, 1968): “In the opinion of the eight virologists, these viruses are members of a previously unrecognised group which they suggest should be called the coronaviruses, to recall the characteristic appearance by which these viruses are identified in the electron microscope.”

Viewed microscopically, the viruses are roundish and have projections forming a “corona” like that seen during a solar eclipse (the Latin noun corona means a crown or wreath).

In scientific as opposed to general English, “coronavirus” isn’t normally used by itself, without any modifiers, to mean the virus or the disease of the current pandemic.

The virus’s official name, announced on Feb. 11, 2020, by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, is “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2,” abbreviated as “SARS-CoV-2.”

As for the disease, its official name, announced the same day by the World Health Organization, is “COVID-19,” an abbreviation of “coronavirus disease 2019.”

The two international agencies, according to the WHO, “were in communication about the naming of both the virus and the disease.” But in its own communications with the public, the WHO says it won’t use the official taxonomic name of the virus (“SARS-CoV-2”), instead using more general terms like “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “the COVID-19 virus.”

The agency decided this in part, it says, because “using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003.”

The disease SARS (for “severe acute respiratory syndrome”) is now inactive. But outbreaks of MERS (officially “Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus,” or “MERS-CoV”), were still being reported in late 2019 in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, according to WHO reports.

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