Why is the article the used when talking about the death penalty, but isn't used when discussing abortion?

  • 1
    Because there are several penalties, of which the death penalty is one, whereas there is only one kind of abortion. – Anonym Aug 4 '14 at 18:02
  • That's not necessarily true; if that were entirely true, then it seems that someone could oppose "the late-term abortion". – Matt Gutting Aug 4 '14 at 18:12
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    "Abortion of late term" doesn't work, where as "penalty of death" does. Ours is a strange language. – DougM Aug 4 '14 at 18:30
  • This is because the type of penalty is (half-)particular thanks to "death", while abortion is used as a general noun. – Itsme Aug 4 '14 at 18:45
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    "In Robin Hood's day, English citizens were forbidden to kill the king's deer, under penalty of death." – Sven Yargs Aug 4 '14 at 22:43

The death penalty is referred to with an article because it is a specific thing—a penalty. It refers to something written in law, rather than all instances of it. There are multiple instances of the death penalty, referred to as death sentences.

In the linked article, another term for the death penalty is capital punishment. This does not use the definite article because punishment is a general idea—a term for the imposition of a penalty. We could, of course, say the punishment but that would refer to a specific instance of it.

Similarly, when talking about abortion, it is the general idea we are talking about—not something written somewhere in law books. There is no specific abortion we are talking about, no specific thing we can refer to as the abortion, unless we talk about an instance of it.

Here's a web page about when to not use the in English. Similar general things that do not need articles include

I like listening to music.

I watch sports.

Whereas, when we refer to a particular instance of these things:

I like listening to the music you sent me.

I watched the Bears game.

  • 2
    That's because most other penalties aren't referred to using penalty at all—like jail time or community service. But in general, I'd refer to a particular penalty (something defined as a penalty by law) as the penalty or a penalty. For example, there's a penalty for selling drugs which is generally jail time. – user85526 Aug 4 '14 at 18:54
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    Sure, there's the maximum penalty, the minimum penalty, the standard penalty, the first penalty, and any number of jurisdiction-specific named penalties analogous to the death penalty; for example, in ice hockey, there's the match penalty. – Dan Bron Aug 4 '14 at 19:10
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    There's actually an interesting division here: some penalties are named for the crime, e.g. the late penalty (which is the penalty for the crime of being late), vs penalties named for the consequences (the penalties themselves), such as the death penalty (you pay for the crime with your life) or the tax penalty (you pay for the crime with increased taxes). Most "named" penalties name the crime; only a few, usually most severe (and therefore "most unique") name the consequences. – Dan Bron Aug 4 '14 at 19:25
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    +1 I think it's worth mentioning that one would refer to the law relating to abortion as (eg in the UK) "The Abortion Act", and it's that that is analogous to "The Death Penalty". These things take "the" because they are specific things. "Abortion" isn't, in the same way that "Capital Punishment" isn't. – Rupe Aug 4 '14 at 22:58
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    @TimLymington Right, and that provides a good example of what the "the" does. "Abortion Law" is a general term as you say, but "the Abortion Law" would be referring to a specific law (whether that means a specific Act or "the law as it is at a specific time"). – Rupe Aug 5 '14 at 13:28

Emphasis and politics. By using the the term "the" in front of a word in a title, it's emphasis that term and also narrows it down to a single topic.


  1. A Death Penalty

  2. The Death Penalty

As a reader, which one do you think has the more meaning and impact? I could talk about 'a' death penalty, but when the word 'the' is mentioned in front of a penalty, it becomes a single entity.

Imagine the difference between The Death Penalty and Abortion.

  1. The Death Penalty
  2. The Abortion

When using the term "the" in front of abortion, it's meaning changes. It has more emphasis and is no longer consider a loose terminology! Both the death penalty and abortion involve deaths, but one type of death is considered "more important" than another death. That's the political half and the reason why "the" is used for the death penalty compared to abortion.

The older practices were "sacrifices" in which youth and newborns were killed in order to appease a God in a ritual. Today's unborn youth (Generation Z) are killed by their parents (Generation X) through abortion by help of medical science. When there were wars, parents were concern of the life of their children, but since there has not been another world war, this care has been replaced with politics which extends past from the Baby Boomber (BB) generation.

It's quiet strange how the human eyes and ears are trained to react to certain words in the English language. There is a reason for it. :)

  • 1
    This is nonsense. – Casey Aug 5 '14 at 15:16

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