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I have seen (the) Magna Carta referred to both with and without an article, a distinction that doesn't seem to have any relation to nationality (i.e. I've seen British sources and American sources both use and omit the article).

"Stop Revering Magna Carta"The New York Times

Through Coke’s treatises, Magna Carta traveled across the Atlantic. William Penn published an edition in 1687, and in the 17th century several colonies enacted Magna Carta as part of their law. With the Stamp Act of 1765, the imagery of a tyrannical government impinging on ancient rights proved useful to both John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who invoked different provisions of Magna Carta in calling for repeal. The founding fathers thought they were drawing on the document in drafting the Constitution, for example, in the clause “due process of law” — though that phrase was added to Magna Carta in English law only in the 14th century.

The Magna Carta enshrined our liberties - now we must fight for them again The Guardian

It’s because of the Magna Carta that, in 2003, 3 million of us were able to come together to protest against the Iraq war. It’s the Magna Carta that means we can legally fight cases where a severely disabled person is confined to a single room because her local council has failed to provide suitable housing. And, ironically, it’s the Magna Carta that has ultimately allowed us to vote in a government that seems hell bent on destroying it.

Is one usage preferred or more acceptable? Does the Latin nature of the phrase "Magna Carta" remove the normal need to attach an article?

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  • 1
    "The" has been used for quite a long time there. (books.google.com/ngrams/…)
    – TRomano
    Jun 15 '15 at 12:05
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    Even NGrams AmE has more without the article. But it's BrE usage that counts ('cos it's ours! :) Jun 15 '15 at 12:17
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    Has the possibility that some of these instances may be misleading because they are in titles where 'the' is dropped?
    – Mitch
    Jun 15 '15 at 12:31
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    @eliyahu-g. What we cannot see from these Google searches is use in speech (as distinct from writing). I have never in my life heard anyone not use the definite article with Magna Carta. I say "American joe" because that's who I have experience with and whose speech I can attest to..
    – TRomano
    Jun 15 '15 at 14:19
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    Shouldn't it be Ye? Jun 15 '15 at 22:20
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Since "Magna Carta" is a Latin name and Latin would not need the use of an article then it is technically improper to use the definite article with it.

However, both seem to be acceptable in normal usage.

Source: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/112237?redirectedFrom=Magna+Carta

(may need a subscription so here is the relevant text pasted in)

"Usu. without article."

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    Not downvoting, but the first sentence is a line of argument with a long and rather ignominious pedigree. For instance the old "don't split an infinitive" (mis)rule supposedly came from scholars of Latin, where such a thing was not possible. The problem is that Latin and English are indisputably different languages, and we are talking about English here. It is quite proper to impose English grammar rules upon terms imported into it once they have been used in English for a while. 800 years seems long enough to me.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 15 '15 at 16:28
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    Also, if we were to stick to Latin grammar rules here, I believe the ending on "Carta" would have to change depending on what part of a sentence it is being used in. I got D's in Latin though, so don't hold me to that...
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 15 '15 at 16:30
  • Fair point, the naturalisation (over 800 years) is probably the reason why it is quite common to see it both with and without the definite article. As with many things (see: Oxford comma) I suppose it is just a matter of style, and consistency is key.
    – Jascol
    Jun 15 '15 at 20:24
  • You have also reminded me of the maxim: "Happy is the man who has never been told to not split the infinitive." ;)
    – Jascol
    Jun 15 '15 at 20:27
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    There's a difference between using Latin rules with Latin (including Latin quotations and set phrases) and using Latin rules with English (as in split infinitives). Most people would accept that Latin spelling is a good guide to spelling Latin words in English (give or take a suffix). Other rules are interpreted differently: you certainly hear a lot of non-Latin plurals of Latin expressions: bona fides, agendas, discuses, radiuses. Latin words often have a different meaning in English, e.g. a narrower legal meaning, or as with bona fide. And it's common to say The Aeneid.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 3 at 9:05
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The funny thing about the definite article is that it is used differently in America (AmE) than in England (BrE). In general, I believe BrE has a tendency to drop it, where AmE has a tendency to insert it.

The most famous example is the word Hospital. In the US, a person goes "to the hospital", while in the UK one goes "to hospital". I'm gathering that "Magna Carta" is also in this boat.

To my American eyes, using it without "the" just looks wrong. I'd be tempted to think either the writer is referring to some other "great charter" (that's what the Latin translates to), or that they are being disrespectful.

So basically, I think you'll have to figure out which group is your primary audience, and accept that you are going to tick off the other. :-)

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  • As someone who on occasion designs (computer) languages, I actually have a lot of admiration for the Brit's attempts to do away with the indefinite article. Its a nigh-useless bit of syntactic sugar.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 15 '15 at 13:24
  • I think you're making a false distinction here. Look at my citations: the New York Times (American) drops the article (this is a consistent usage in all their recent articles on MC), and the Guardian (British) keeps it, suggesting the reasoning is wrong.
    – user88040
    Jun 15 '15 at 13:35
  • I think I confused things by arguing about university/college/school while also arguing for being allowed to say the Magna Carta. So, (1) In the UK, we might say "He's in hospital" [no article, not specifying which hospital] or "I went to the hospital this morning" [meaning my local hospital. We'd always say "She's in college/university" with no article, or "She's at Durham University" [it's its title, so no article needed anyway]. (2) I stand by "the Magna Carta". Last month I visited the Alhambra in Andalusia, although "Al" is the Arabic definite article. Jun 15 '15 at 14:03
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    @FumbleFingers Interesting. I think the origin of the omitted article is British, but I think the question hinges on why the article is dropped (general UK penchant for article dropping, or historical grammatical reasons regarding Latin loan words), and I am totally unqualified to answer that question.
    – user88040
    Jun 15 '15 at 14:35
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    I'm late to the party here, but just to add one thing: I'm British, and although I completely agree that it's common for us to omit the "the" in this case, it is also anomalous. I can't think of any other example where we refer to a historical document like that - it's the Mappa Mundi, the Book of Kells, the Declaration of Arbroath, and so on. So I think that any attempt to fit it into a general pattern, a la "go to [the] hospital", is doomed to failure. Sorry :-)
    – Morton
    Jun 15 '15 at 17:36
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First a baldly stated answer:

In AmE, it is 'the Magna Carta', spoken or written, but headlines may drop the article as they usually do.

Now commentary: I wondered what the ballyhoo here was about (the) Magna Carta until I heard on the news today about it's 800th anniversary... from the BBC... in which the announcer talked about 'Magna Carta'. And, I, as an AmE speaker, thought that was jarring. To my ears it definitely needs an article.

That said, this shows the difficulty in making pronouncements. Maybe the announcer (or copy editor) is weird. Maybe I'm weird, maybe the professor in the interview is weird, maybe you're weird (weird = out of the ordinary). Maybe the corpora are skewed/selected weird/use headlines mostly, etc. etc. etc. And maybe 'ordinary' is very context dependent.

And it seems like all the data that's been gathered so far (Google NGrams/COCA/BNC) is inconsistent. So all I have to go on is the dreaded introspection.

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  • I'd suggest taking the chat link in the comments of my answer and reading it over. @eliyahu-g Has indeed found tons of examples from US-based publications of an article-less Magna Carta. There's even one intriguing example where someone at CNN seems to have missed an edit and left one occurrence of the article in. I regretfully have to agree with him that this looks like a concerted effort.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 15 '15 at 15:04
  • (otherwise, this is essentially making the same point as my answer, so +1 from me. :-) )
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 15 '15 at 15:05
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    @T.E.D. Yes. My point was that all this data you've collected seems to go against yours and my personal (though limited) experience... but I feel like our experience should take precedence here. Or maybe we (and many others) are making a systematic error that editors have been trying to battle aagainst for years.
    – Mitch
    Jun 15 '15 at 15:08
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My understanding is that the use of "Magna Carta" is a historical convention. However, like most historical conventions, it is being forgotten and the default treatment is being applied, making it "the Magna Carta".

I am not sure of the rationale of that convention, but it is notable that "Magna Carta" is a name that only attached to the document(s) much later, and in any event the original (1215) Magna Carta was swiftly set aside by the Pope and the Magna Carta which had legal force (and different wording) did not exist until 1255 when Henry III was old enough to sign it. So perhaps calling it "the" Magna Carta when you're talking about a legal document issued and reissued in many copies and versions over 40-odd years makes no sense. It's not a single document ("the MC"), it's not part of a group ("a MC"), it's just a class of things called Magna Carta.

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The OED says of "Magna Carta": "Usually without article."

It has two definitions - it can refer to the "charter of English personal and political liberty", and in this sense, none of the OED's nine citations have the definite article (though one of them has the determiner "his") - or it can refer to "any similar document", and in this sense, some of them do have the article.

Some proper nouns are preceded by an article and others aren't (and some common names such as "parliament" gain a capital and often drop their article when referring to the actions of the British Parliament: "Parliament has decided ..."). The other "great charters" are all referred to with the definite article. So it is at least possible that the fact that "Carta" isn't an English word, and the fact that "Magna Carta" is a proper noun made up entirely of foreign words, may have discouraged the use of "the" historically. It is difficult to think of another great historical document or charter that is named in English without using a definite article, but it is also difficult to think of another one with a comparable name.

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