When Is a Proper Name a Proper Noun?

From “Baby Listens” by Esther Wilkin, illustrated by Eloise Wilkin (1960)

“Tum, tum, tum dee dum, Baby’s beating on his drum.” That’s a line I repeat at least three times a day at the moment — from Page 6 of the Little Golden Books classic Baby Listens. And usually, charmed as I am by the earworm chant, the glorious Eloise Wilkin illustration, and my daughter’s intense engagement with the material, when I read it, I think about work.

Specifically, about my job at the Technische Universität München. Otherwise known as the TUM (get it? Tum dee TUM? Although the rhyme’s slightly off. … ). Otherwise known — by some colleagues — incorrectly as TUM (no “the”), grating on me and thus creeping, stream-of-consciousness, into that vast space in one’s head created by the seemingly endless repetition of bedtime stories.

But why are my colleagues wrong? Why is the TUM treated as an elaboration of the university at the core of its name — a common noun, university, which needs a determiner, the — when the school it considers its closest U.S. equivalent, MIT, goes determiner-free? And why do we sometimes talk about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but never the MIT?

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, co-authored by my Lingua Franca colleague Geoffrey Pullum, puts some labels to what’s going on: The Technical University of Munich (my employer’s name in English) is a weak proper name composed of a noun phrase with a common head noun. It is a proper name because it refers to a particular institution and “weak” because it calls for a definite article (rather redundantly, the CGEL authors point out). The name’s head noun, “university,” is common — that is, it labels a class of objects, not a particular place, person, or organization.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on the other hand, can be a strong proper name — no definite article, at least according to some style guides. Michigan State University, where I grew up, is always strong despite having the exact same (common) head noun as the TUM’s. Geoff’s LF post from 2015, “The Structure of University Names,” gives a more thorough analysis of university names.

OK, but how come? (One of those great instances when whiny kids sound like Elizabethans.) The CGEL admits that whether a proper name is strong or weak is “a rather arbitrary matter.” You can usually count on city names being strong (although there are exceptions, e.g., the Hague). Country names, too, though again with exceptions. Desert, ocean, and newspaper names tend to be weak. Universities? It’s a real mix. As soon as you think you’ve found a rule, it gets broken: think the Ohio State University or King’s College London.

And once you consider abbreviations (an initialism with each letter pronounced, e.g., MIT) and acronyms (an initialism read as a word, e.g., TUM), the mix becomes a mess. MIT is both a proper name and a proper noun (Massachusetts Institute of Technology is not a noun, proper or not, because only single words qualify as nouns), meaning you can drop the determiner; the TUM, for whatever reason, has not become a proper noun. To most of us, the CIA is not a proper noun, but apparently to insiders it is: They say they work at CIA (to the extent they tell anyone at all).

It starts to feel not that we’re beating on a drum, but rather our heads against a wall. Still, there are reasons to care. Geoff gave one good one back in 2015: Native speakers’ ability to dexterously juggle all the variations of institution names and their initialisms might suggest that people learn syntax by example — as opposed to through an innate personal grammar.

I’ve got another. English as a Second Language learners, and particularly those from China and Russia, struggle with articles (thea, and an). Teachers often provide a few quick rules (countable nouns need an a or an, uncountable nouns don’t), even if we’re aware the rules don’t always work (“I’d like a coffee, please”). If forced, we reason our way through the exceptions (“a coffee” is just a stand-in for a countable cup of coffee) — but we hope we won’t be forced.

But it is worth remembering that none of us — experts included — are quite sure why people visit the MoMA but not the NASA, and why stocks plummet on the DAX but rise on Nasdaq. Keeping this in mind is humbling, and reminds us to emphasize to our students the madness of searching for hard-and-fast rules in English. Not to mention enforcing arbitrary language patterns among colleagues. Tum dee dum.

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