Occupational articles

Thank you for visiting my business writing blog. This post is about something more common in journalism than in business. It’s worth discussing because it shows how grammar can be subverted for silly reasons.

A strange fashion has arisen that disturbs me more deeply than it should. This is the bizarre misuse of the definite article when writing someone’s occupation and name.

Here are examples of the correct way to identify people and their occupations. These are from the society-and-real-estate column, ‘Title Deeds’, in The Sydney Morning Herald of 8 April, 2012:

‘… designer Lisa Ho …’ 

‘… actor Holly Brisley …’ 

‘… entrepreneur Joe Coffey …’ 

‘… Gail Elliot, a fashion designer and former model …’ 

‘… Nick Whitlam, the chairman of Port Kembla Port Corporation …’

‘The former Miss Universe, TV personality and cossie (swimsuit) designer Jennifer Hawkins …’

This list is unremarkable because it presents occupations and names correctly. However, I’m sure you have read publications that would have done the first three like this —

‘… thedesigner Lisa Ho …’ 

‘… the actor Holly Brisley …’ 

‘… theentrepreneur Joe Coffey …’ 

— as if Ms. Ho were the only designer on earth, Ms. Brisley the only actor, and Mr. Coffey the only entrepreneur.

For example, here’s the next entry done both ways:

1. As published correctly — ‘… Gail Elliot, a fashion designer and former model …’ 

2. As too often misused — ‘… Gail Elliot, the fashion designer and former model …’ 

Grammar, Logic and Class Politics 

Articles are the smallest, simplest words in English. There are two types, definite and indefinite.

The definite article defines the nouns it precedes. It makes those nouns distinct from other nouns of the same category. The definite article is the.

The indefinite articles are so called because they do not distinguish their nouns from others of the same category. The indefinite articles are: a and an.

Grammar website http://www.usingenglish.com states that (a and an) are used before a singular noun that has a plural form.’

In the Gail Elliot case, ‘fashion designer’ does have a plural form, fashion designers. Therefore, the correct article is a, as was published in the Herald. To use the is not just ungrammatical; it is illogical.

However, note the difference when referring to Nick Whitlam and Jennifer Hawkins by their occupations and CVs:

‘… Nick Whitlam, the chairman of Port Kembla Port Corporation …’

The Port Kembla Port Corporation has only one chairman. That particular noun can have no plural form, so the is the proper article.

Ms. Hawkins’ case is subtler:

The former Miss Universe, TV personality and cossie (swimsuit) designer Jennifer Hawkins …’

The article effectively applies to all three of her titles or positions:

1. former Miss Universe

2. TV personality

3. swimwear designer

We are pretty safe in assuming that she is the only person to whom all three of these apply. Each noun has a plural form, but the combination is uniquely singular. So the is the correct article.

Grammaring (wonderful name) gives these examples of correct use of the definite article with titles and positions —

– Barthez has never been the goalkeeper of Crystal Palace FC.

The head of department allowed me to retake the exam.

The Queen will be opening a new music hall next month.

The Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church.


A soccer side has only one goalkeeper; a department has only one head; England has only one Queen; the Roman Catholic Church has only one Pope. Unless you can say the same about the person/position you are describing, don’t use the.

The first three entries in the Herald column have no article at all. This is called the zero article case. It’s the default setting for writing people’s occupations and names. For instance, I could very happily edit the last three entries in the Herald column to the zero article case, like this:

 ‘… fashion designer and former model Gail Elliot, …’ 

‘… chairman of Port Kembla Port Corporation Nick Whitlam, …’

‘Former Miss Universe, TV personality and cossie designer Jennifer Hawkins …’

Note in the first two that I changed the syntax — placing the descriptive phrases ahead of the names. This will usually mean that you need no article.

Now to politics and class. The worst offenders seem to be the progressive (‘left-wing’) media. Slate.com is one of my favourite sites, but they routinely publish goofball stuff like these:

‘… the critic Lee Siegel …’ 

which should be zero article —

‘… critic Lee Siegel …’ 


‘… wishes she “had been Helen Vendler,” the poetry critic and Harvard professor.’

which should be indefinite article —

‘… wishes she “had been Helen Vendler,” a poetry critic and Harvard professor.’

as in the Herald column —

‘… Gail Elliot, a fashion designer and former model …’ 

Note that the occupations ennobled by rogue definitives are artistic and academic. This is another aspect of the craze. I’ve lost track of how many unknowns like the filmmaker John Smith or the author Ann Jones have interrupted my reading.It’s as if there were no longer such things as a filmmaker or an author.

But the (small-‘L’) liberal publications and websites never refer to the farmer Geoffrey Screed or the fish-and-chips shop owner Helen Franks. For instance, would Slate.com promote Gail Elliot tothe fashion designer and former model? Somehow, I doubt it.

This is the dark side of what would otherwise be just an annoying affectation of the literati, who by definition should know better. It’s more than political correctness run amok. The definite occupational article has a whiff of class consciousness about it.

By referring to their peers as THE whatever they happen to be, these writers imply that they’re somehow more worthy than those whose occupations merit only the indefinite a or an — or, even more anonymously, the null zone of the zero article.

I’m intensely curious about how this began and who started it. If you know, please comment. In the meantime, don’t do it. It’s not only bad grammar but also just plain silly.


About Copymentor

Australian and US copywriter, creative director and author
This entry was posted in Business, Editing, English, Grammar and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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