I'd like to know if there is a rule concerning the usage of "the" preceding nouns already including a foreign article. For instance, should a restaurant called "La trattoria" be referred to simply as "la trattoria" or as "the la trattoria"?

A recent visit to LA made me realise the common usage is somewhat silly, a museum guide kept talking about "the la brea tar pits", where "the" means the same as "la", and "brea" means the same as "tar". Should this kind of redundancy be avoided?

  • "The" refers to "tar pits". La Brea is the name of the tar pits (though redundant). "La Trattoria" is the name of the place, not the description. If called by name, you'd omit the "the". If using the word as a generic term, you'd use the "the"...as in "Let's go to the trattoria around the corner." Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 18:15
  • Similarly the alcohol and the alchemy, and, until recently, the alkoran, in which al is the Arabic definite article. Perhaps it should be avoided, but the grammatically unfortunate truth is that neither al nor la is recognized by most native speakers as a definite article, and so it is usually assumed to be part of the word.
    – Anonym
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 18:17
  • @user61979, isn't the article a separate word? Maybe alcohol started out that way but it's an English word now and coincidentally (or not) is usually referred to as "alcohol", not "the alcohol". Same with "alchemy". Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 22:38
  • What I meant was that alcohol (and the others) can appear with the definite article before them: e.g. the alcohol was his undoing.
    – Anonym
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 23:43

3 Answers 3


According to The Los Angeles Times Stylebook, "In spite of the redundancies, it is perfectly acceptable to say the La Brea tar pits. La Brea is indeed Spanish for the tar, but in English La Brea is a place name and the translation is irrelevant. Therefore: They visited the La Brea tar pits."

Another example is the El Mocambo, a well-known bar in Toronto.

  • Your example seems to contradict itself. "The" El Mocambo would be used if you include "bar", as in "The El Mocambo bar", typically. Or is it really referred to as "the El Mocambo"? Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 18:18
  • 1
    @KristinaLopez - Toronto's rather-more-famous-than-it-needs-to-be bar is, indeed, properly called "the El Mocombo" (or, colloquially, "the Elmo").
    – bye
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 22:29
  • Oh! Thanks @bye! I have heard of "the Elmo"! Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 22:35
  • So the answer is that there is no rule and is judged arbitrarily on a case by case basis? Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 23:01
  • Not quite arbitrarily, but yes.
    – keshlam
    Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 3:30

The literal meaning of a name in its original language is largely irrelevant. If a foreign name has become embedded directly in English (as opposed to a translation, e.g. the capital of Argentina is Buenos Aires, not Fair Winds), it will follow English conventions with regards to articles, pluralization, compound formation, and so on. If not, then some may apply the rules of the original language, but others may not.

A similar phenomenon may be observed with loanwords. The plural of nom de plume may be noms de plume or nom de plumes, depending on whom you ask. But the plural of troika is troikas, almost never troiki.

With proper nouns, what gets adopted as the English name tends to be taken wholesale as a name. We would not double up articles where a name in English tends to take an article: The Habsburg general and the United Provinces general exchanged letters, not The Habsburg general and the The United Provinces general exchanged letters. We would not call a certain local government building the The Hague city hall. But if we take the Dutch name untranslated, no one will object to the Den Haag city hall, even though that would be the literal translation.

Rancho La Brea has been a fixture of Los Angeles for some time, and anyone who has followed the Los Feliz pronunciation controversy should not be surprised that La Brea is treated according to English rules, like many Spanish spellings and pronunciations that were anglicized in California in the late 19th and early 20th century. We say the La Brea Tar Pits just as naturally as we say the McKittrick Tar Pits, a few hours away.

But in the end, why would we expect speakers of any language to understand the vocabulary and usage of foreign ones, and to adjust to accommodate the foreign usages? We can find endless examples of names and other words that would be redundant if translated literally, among them

  • The -stan suffix in Persian and Urdu means place of or land of, but no one would object to the land of Kyrgyzstan on redundancy grounds.

  • the Sierra Nevada range in eastern California and western Nevada translates to Snowy Mountains; however, most refer to them as the Sierra Nevadas or the Sierra Nevada mountains.

  • Lake Malawi's historical name is Lake Nyasa, still used by Mozambique and Tanzania, even though niassa (variously transliterated) itself means lake or other large body of water.

Language is not rational.


It depends on where we live and to whom we are speaking. There are countries, cities or neighbourhoods where a second or even third language is commonly used, to say nothing of our having more exposure to the world-at-large through media, travel and other means. I live in Canada where there are two official languages, as well as evergrowing respect for the many aboriginal languages spoken here. As for errors such as the use of "nom de plumes" instead of "noms de plume", the example given above - the incorrect use of a second language, when one's first language provides the means of expression, is an unnecessary display of ignorance. Fortunately, one of our greatest pleasures is that we all continue to learn throughout life.

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