Anathema is a nounRef. And, nouns generally need articles in certain kinds of sentences.


Jane is _______.

Jane is a cat. is proper but Jane is cat. (no article) is not proper.

However, I see both usages for "anathema":
Jane is anathema. and Jane is an anathema..

As in these examples from Dictionary.com:

  • Risk assessment is anathema to most environmental groups.
  • That's an anathema to most mainstream journalists.
  • They are close lipped, secretive and anathema to the open stadards[sic] movement.

Shouldn't "anathema" almost always have an article (an) in front of it?
If not, why not? (other than a bunch of people have already used it improperly)

Is there a standard reference that allows this? For example, I haven't yet found anything in The Gregg Reference Manual.

  • 1
    Perhaps relevant: Merriam-Webster defines anathema, in part, as: b : someone or something intensely disliked or loathed —usually used as a predicate nominative <this notion was anathema to most of his countrymen — S. J. Gould> – Hot Licks Jul 23 '16 at 21:14
  • 1
    Also 'Jane is a nathema' – Mitch Jul 23 '16 at 21:23
  • 2
    "Anathema" seems to function as a predicate adjective in many contexts. In particular, the third of your examples from Dictionary.com uses "anathema" in parallel with the adjective phrase "close lipped" and the adjective "secretive". – Andreas Blass Jul 24 '16 at 4:01
  • 1
    Strange that all the dictionaries classify it as a noun, I would've said it were an adjective. – curiousdannii Oct 25 '16 at 1:22
  • I reckon it's down to the lazy tongue. 'An anathema' is a mouthful. That said, anathema is a noun. It deserves an article. – user226188 Mar 20 '17 at 21:46

Whether you use the determiner 'an' depends on if you are using the word as a regular noun, a 'pseudo-adjective' or a predicate nominative.

As explained in a post on fluther.com ; in which the person who answered the question, cites Burchfield and Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

“The word anathema can be used as a regular noun (essentially meaning “a thing cursed”) and a determiner can appear in front of it, “an anathema.” However, it is usually used as what Burchfield calls a “pseudo-adjective” or a predicate nominative (no determiner): “The union was anathema to the middle management class.”

Authority: The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage edited by R.W. Burchfield. Clarendon Press: Oxford, England. 1996. Used with the permission of Oxford University Press.”

  • So, if I'm understanding you correctly, whether to use the article depends on whether we want the 'noun' usage or some other usage. – Discrete lizard Mar 20 '18 at 10:29

There are three reasons for preferring the shorter version. History and social identity:

Let him be Anathema. 1 Cor xvi

Consider it as factitive:

Jane is cook. Let Jane be Judge. Jane is Queen of the May.


  • 1
    Not feeling this answer yet. (1) That Bible example is a misquote. The actual phrase is ..., let him be Anathema Maranatha. (KJV, with most other English versions having the Maranatha in some form) So, this may just be an early misuse or a deliberate, one-time, poetical construction. ... (2) The "factitive" examples do not hold, as those are all formal titles in context. "Anathema" is not a formal title AFAICT. ... (3) Euphony might be okay, but that would also excuse all kinds of pigeon English that's not considered grammatically correct (yet). – Brock Adams May 6 '15 at 0:03
  • Hoping for a more authoritative answer, but will accept this one in a day or 2 if nothing better comes along. – Brock Adams May 6 '15 at 0:04
  • The Vulgate has: "si quis non amat Dominum Iesum Christum sit anathema maranatha", so the English may just be a (slight) mistranslation, omitting the article as happened from time to time? – Brock Adams May 6 '15 at 0:10
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    @Brock what matters the Latin? It's a translation of the Koine Greek. Anyway, let him be anathema is a good translation, and it's also in both Galatians 1:8 and 1:9 in a couple English translations, although many versions translate the word to accursed. – AmE speaker Mar 21 '17 at 21:12
  • @Clare, the KJV was translated from a variety of languages and all checked against the Vulgate. The Latin also matters because it suggests that the article was present in the original, whatever the language. Finally, a translation that omits a whole concept, is NOT a good translation, no matter how often it is repeated. (But it may be a pithier sound bite.) – Brock Adams Mar 21 '17 at 21:54

Here is an Ngram chart across the period 1700–2005 for "is an anathema" (blue line), "is anathema" (red line), "was an anathema" (green line) and "was anathema" (yellow line):

As you can see, the two forms without the indefinite article before anathema are far more common than the two forms with the indefinite article before anathema—and have been so for more than a century.

But an equally interesting Ngram chart compares "an anathema" (blue line), "anathema" (red line), and "anathemas" (green line) over the same period:

It is not at all surprising that the blue line for "an anathema" is always below the red line for "anathema," since any instance of the former is necessarily also an instance of the latter. But the frequency of "anathemas" (the green line) is markedly higher than the frequency of "an anathema," even though it is simply the plural form of "an anethema."

The few style guides I checked that discuss anathema at all seem not at all concerned about the issue of whether an indefinite article should precede it. The entry in Bergen Evans & Cornelia Evans, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957) focuses entirely on the question of what the plural form should be:

anathema. The plural is anathemas or anathemata, not anathemae.

And Webster's Word Histories (1989), despite devoting a full page to the word, never discusses the sometimes-present, sometimes-absent indefinite article at all, referring variously to "an anathema of oblivion," "offered up as an anathema," "Among the more famous anathemas," and "the mutual anathemas" and quoting Deuteronomy 7:26 in the Douay Bible as saying

Neither shalt thou bring anything of the idol into thy house, lest thou become an anathema, like it. Thou shalt detest it as dung, and shalt utterly abhor it as uncleanness and filth, because it is an anathema.

and yet observe, in the next paragraph,

All of the church councils since the Council of Nicaea [A.D. 325] have worded their dogmatic canons to include the sentence "If anyone says ... let him be anathema."

It's as though the book doesn't notice the shift from "an anathema" and "anathemas" to article-less "anathema"—or doesn't consider it important.

And yet dictionaries identify all of the meanings of anathema, whether presented with articles or without them, are treated as nouns. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2011) makes this clear through its choice of examples to illustrate the different definitions:

anathema n., pl. -mas 1. A formal ecclesiastical ban, curse, or excommunication. 2. A vehement denunciation; a curse. "the sound of a witch's anathemas in some unknown tongue" (Nathaniel Hawthorne). 3. One that is cursed or damned. 4. One that is greatly reviled, loathed, or shunned. "Essentialism—a belief in natural, immutable sex differences—is anathema to postmodernists, for whom sexuality itself, along with gender, is a 'social construct'" (Wendy Kaminer).

As presented above, definition 4 gives no hint as to why anathema appears in Kaminer's quotation without an article. And yet in the quotation anathema reads as though it were a stand-in for an adjective such as monstrous or disgusting. None of the reference works I consulted explain how this split in treatment arose, although it may very well go back to translations of the "let him be anathema" wording cited by Webster's Word Histories from the Council of Nicaea and subsequent church councils.

  • Summary: "Historically, the article is most often omitted for anathema". So, per Gary above, this is evidence that anathema is most often used as a predicate nominative. When can we say that the modern dictionaries are wrong and just call it an adjective? ;) – Brock Adams Mar 21 '17 at 18:50
  • Is this really so different from many other words e.g. hatred, inconsistency, collaboration, performance, which can be used both with and without determiners. – WS2 Mar 2 at 9:38

protected by Community Mar 20 '17 at 21:59

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