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In an English language textbook for Italian middle school students, there is a reading exercise where students have to fill in the gaps. Here is a completed excerpt

The International Red Cross/Red Crescent is a global charity and humanitarian organisation. It believes that people everywhere have a right to life and health. …blah, blah, blah… The Red Cross / Red Crescent began its work in 1863. Today, it operates in 186 countries and every year it gives help to about 250 million people.

My two private students had to write a paragraph about a charitable institution of their own choice. We came up with 1. Médecins Sans Frontières (in Italian Medici Senza Frontiere) which is also known as Doctors Without Borders 2. Greenpeace and 3. Amnesty International. They each chose an institution and they all started their paragraphs with the definite article "the" just like in the textbook.

  1. The Doctors Without Borders is a global charity and humanitarian…
  2. The Greenpeace is a global charity and pacific organisation…

I crossed out the articles and said they weren't needed. Samuele asked me why–good for him–but I didn't know what to say, so I promised I would look into it.

While I can explain that the definite article is needed when we mention the United Nations Children's Fund because it is a collection of states/nations, and it is omitted when it is shortened to UNICEF. I don't know why the article is needed for the Red Cross but not for Doctors Without Borders or Amnesty International.

I'm also aware that if the name of a company or band starts with "The" e.g. The Beatles, The Leathersellers’ Company, and The Body Shop the article is always obligatory and always capitalised. However, the charity's name used in the book name is International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and yet the article is needed.

  • Is there a reason? Why is the definite article necessary in the International Red Cross, but not for Greenpeace or Amnesty International?
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    Even more perplexing, U.S. English almost universally attaches a the to "the North Atlantic Treaty Organization" and "the North American Free Trade Agreement," but universally omits a the from "NATO" and "NAFTA". Why don't we treat those initialisms the same way we treat the acronym "the NAACP"? – Sven Yargs Apr 1 '18 at 5:56
  • It is merely a matter of conventions which have grown up. One football team in Britain can (but not always) take a definite article - namely "The Arsenal". But no others do. – WS2 Apr 1 '18 at 8:58
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    @SvenYargs you might be interested in my question on the definite article with initialisms. It mostly seems a matter of convention (in the initialism case), but there seem to be some exceptions. – JJJ Apr 1 '18 at 15:18
  • I suspect that the article is present because it is part or has become part of the name itself, a sort of brand. Otherwise the more common “rule” is usage without article. For instance you have The Bank of England and The Federal Reserve, but then Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sacks or Deutche Bank without article. – user067531 Apr 13 '18 at 12:00
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    Please Mari-Lou, how is that about anything but the proper titles or styles of address of the organisations? – Robbie Goodwin Apr 15 '18 at 19:50
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Convention, yes, and I think there is a reason for the convention.

An acronym tends to serve as a proper name when pronounced as a word

I gave a penny to UNICEF
I gave a penny to Billy

but

I gave a penny to The United Nations Children's Fund
I gave a penny to the headmaster

So

...five million to NATO
...five million to The North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Greenpeace does not use the article, so the article would not be appropriate. Likewise Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International also use no article. The article should be used if the particular organization uses it.

US and UK are not pronounced as words, but as letters, so they use the article.

the UK
the US

ASCAP is pronounced as a word, so

I paid the fee to ASCAP

So, if an organization uses the article, it should be used when writing out the name. If an acronym of the organization is pronounced as a word or words, then no article should be used. If an acronym is pronounced as letters, then the article is appropriate.

I am not touching Arsenal, as I understand that is the Queen's favorite football team.

  • The charity's name is not "The International Red Cross", it is "International Red Cross and Red Crescent" please see the update and the ICRC link in my question which says: …its Statutes those of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the resolutions of the International Conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Note the definite article is used but it is written in lowercase letters. – Mari-Lou A Apr 2 '18 at 12:29
  • When referring to itself IFRC uses the article in English, media.ifrc.org/ifrc. Just the same I am removing the reference to the International Red Cross.. I think one should use the name the organization uses, with or without the article, capitalized or not.. – J. Taylor Apr 2 '18 at 15:44
  • Curiously they don't always use the article in front of their initialism 1. IFRC members work together to make a difference and 2. IFRC understands the importance of having strong management and effective programmes… – Mari-Lou A Apr 2 '18 at 15:51
  • Yes, curious. I think the general principle of using the article when the acronym is pronounced as letters should apply. Such a principle surely solves some issues. As there are no accepted rules for English in this regard, the general principles would be very useful. I am sure I would usr "the IFRC". – J. Taylor Apr 2 '18 at 16:03
  • I looked up ASCAP . They have REALLY really tried hard at their site to remove all reference to what the acronym stands for an to use the acronym as a proper name in a modern way like Apple or Amazon or Microsfot products, and avoided the use of 'the' internally like 'the' ACLU - I do not think this is a "random quirk" of unevenly applied rules.. when an organization makes the change deliberately to brand as a proper noun it's not a topsy turvy thing ... it's a choice – Tom22 Apr 15 '18 at 23:13
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+50

There is reasoning for this. According to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS):

Articles and other determiners are used with proper nouns only when part of the noun is a common noun or the determiner provides emphasis. (5.6)

So, if you compare this to the "Red Cross" and "Doctors Without Borders", you will see that only the former has a common noun. Thus, the former is the only one requiring a determiner. Neither "Doctors" nor "Borders" meet the criteria required to be a common noun; they aren't singular.

The CMOS also states:

Names of companies, institutions, and similar entities are generally treated as collective nouns—and hence singular in American English, even when they are plural in form {General Motors reports that it will earn a profit} {American Airlines has moved its headquarters}. (5.15)

"Doctors Without Borders" does not need a determiner because it is treated as a collective noun in the singular form. I hope this clears things up.

  • Good answer, and thank you. Does this guidance also apply to Amnesty International? Amnesty is not a common noun, hence the article is not needed? If you could address this issue in your answer, (please not in a comment) I would be very grateful. – Mari-Lou A Apr 13 '18 at 18:29
  • If "Doctors Without Borders" were a professional association, especially if it had 'association in its name, but not necessarily, it would still need a 'the'. Like 'the' AARP , 'the' ABA (american bar association), the "Veterans of Foreign Wars", or "Daughters of the American Revolution", or 'the' Augusta Golf Club . Corporations with an entity name like "company" got 'the' in the past but the convention has changed to treat "Bank of America", "Citibank", "Tesla", "General Motors Company" and "Ford Motor Company" the same ... no 'the' anymore in the business pages. – Tom22 Apr 16 '18 at 1:03
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    I think you've misunderstood the term "common noun". Plural nouns can absolutely be common nouns; and if they couldn't, then your CMOS quotation would not account for "the United States of America", "the National Institutes of Health", "the Pew Charitable Trusts", "the New York Yankees", etc. (plus, of course, Tom22's examples). – ruakh Apr 16 '18 at 3:48
  • Now that I have reread your answer with greater attention, it's clear I upvoted a bit too enthusiastically. I thought... that the common noun was referring to the "cross" in the Red Cross, and seeing that "Doctors without Borders" was a plural noun, the article was unnecessary, similar to saying "African Lions live in the Savannah." But that doesn't explain why the singular "amnesty" in Amnesty International doesn't require the article. – Mari-Lou A Apr 18 '18 at 22:11
  • I think I can explain why "Greenpeace" does not need the definite article. It is a proper name, and a slogan. We do not say the "the Batman", "the Snickers", "the Nike", "the I'm loving it", etc. – Mari-Lou A Apr 18 '18 at 22:23
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Exceptions and Irregular Usages can Cloud General Rules

  • Basically, the rules are quite clear – the Red Cross is an unusual case as it is a nickname that now looks more like a name that would fit the newer approaches below (where 'the' is avoided). The organization is still referred to as a 'society' and 'the' comes from that memory as well as 'committee' in its formal name.

The regular usage for entities is to refer to the entity with a 'the'

The cases where 'the' is not used:

  • a proper name stands alone without an entity type within it:
  • However, if the proper name refers to what is known to be a group, team or association it will revert to the regular use of 'the' ('the' Giants (football or baseball team), 'the' Rolling Stones, 'the Masons' ... also helped by being plural names)
  • a small set of entity types where even if the entity type is in the title, 'the' is not used e.g., City, Street, Park, Universities
  • oddly, museums and buildings generally get different treatment than streets

  • if an 'of' syntax is used 'the' re-emerges i.e. he attends 'the' University of Washington' vs he attends Washington University

Acronyms: Acronyms will follow the use of "the" of the underlying words UNLESS the Acronym became so common in usage as a proper name in itself that the underlying alternation was lost.

Nicknames: Shorthand names will follow the use of 'the' of the full alliteration traditionally used ('the Fed' most commonly refers to actions of the Federal Reserve Board' - a group of people, and to a lesser extent the "Federal Reserve Bank") 'the' Red Cross gets its use of the article from its history as a 'society', its use of 'committee' in its formal name and its continued internal referrals within to its regional 'societies' or subsidiary 'societies'

The Evolution/History of use with proper names?

I would contend, that the ability for a proper name to stand alone without an entity type is a relatively modern change and that 'the' was nearly always used with all corporations and organizations. Older literature will refer to 'the' Ford Motor Company, or 'the General Motors company, or 'the' Standard Oil company'. We would still refer to 'the' South Sea Company as it never made the transition.

100 years ago the limited liability corporations with a perpetual life beyond the individuals that created them were still a relatively new structure... it took some major changes in law in the 1920s for the full nature to change and of course, our language will tend to tradition.

Eventually, new conventions formed and 'incorporated' IBM inc. etc was perhaps a transition.

Business literature has accepted a standard of omitting 'the' when referring to publicly traded companies regardless of whether an entity type like company or bank is used in the formal name. "Apple Inc." or "Ford Motor Company" both without 'the' ... "Bank of America" or "Citibank" both without 'the'.

Charities: I would argue that the 'exceptions' in the OP question where 'the' is omitted - purposefully followed the modern convention of corporations

  • all omitted a normal entity name from their formal name (Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders / Medicines Sans Frontieres, Greenpeace)
    Also carefully self refer not as a 'club' or group or use 'the' in referring to themselves internally "Doctors" in is plural very easily .. could have gotten a 'the' without what I would call a very deliberate effort in their marketing.

  • no forced convention to treat all charities the same has developed as has been the case with corporations.

  • I might argue moving to the same uniform standard that applies to corporations has not yet happened because a fair number of the charities still consider themselves as 'clubs' with 'members' (and even things far from 'clubs' like NPR and museums often retain 'member' designation for donors or subscribers). Some Associations truly want to emphasize that they do NOT have a life of their own but are immediately re-portable to their members .. perhaps the AMA and ABA and certain niche trade associations.

All that is left, is to take remaining names and see IF any that do not use 'the' fit firmly into one of the few situations.

The Red Cross maintains the definite article from its roots as a society and its longer official name, including 'committee' as well as not repudiating the use of 'the' internally. If a new charity were formed called "Red Cross" alone, it would not get a 'the' treatment .. if it were called "Red Cross Organization" it probably would get a 'the' as charities have not been forced to a standard without 'the'.

I have already discussed that both "Amnesty International" and "Doctors without Borders" actively chose the modern convention used by corporations in self referal as well as leaving an entity type out from their name.

NATO – is an odd one in that any "alliance" or non-corporate group with an entity name within it gets a 'the'. I believe NATO is irregular in that the "North Atlantic Treaty Organization" is obscured "NATO" is more like Ford or Amazon - it was early in that use I believe but the WWI ANAZAC was treated similarly... even though that C in there is for 'corps' there was an 'ANAZAC Corps' which would have been redundant.

UNICEF – while it does occasionally use the full alteration including 'Fund' in some internal references the acronym is particularly branded as a name in itself. While that might be a bit 'grey' to some, it is aided that it also is not thought of as a club or group of people like the NAACP is (and National Association of Color People still might be in mind). While UNICEF is a well-known charity I think most would struggle to think of the title ... even an hour later after re-reading it ... it is simply more like "Unicef", not a U.N.I.C.E.F. unlike 'the' FBI where people know it's short for something and would give at least an "Oh, yeah" to Federal Bureau of Investigation.

I believe I have covered most and could address and add others.

I do think that all of the names that avoid "the" are exceptionally proper names and those that retain a 'the' with what seems to fit the proper name rule are modern nicknames for 'societies' that retain the longer formal name or tradition.

  • Its full name is the International Committee of the Red Cross Note the following statement: The ICRC is funded mainly by voluntary donations from governments and from [–] National Red Cross and [–] Red Crescent Societies. So I'm completely and utterly confused as to why there are two missing "the's". – Mari-Lou A Apr 15 '18 at 19:57
  • @Mari-LouA fair enough on the chat. I tried to incorporate my evolved thoughts from our discussion in comments (and removed my discussion comments) – Tom22 Apr 15 '18 at 22:43
  • To those still fascinated by this subject... I think there is a LOT more to this in terms of trends in human perception of the world and rhetorical representations . "in 'the' Yosemite Valley' earns a sort of veneration of being 'title-worthy', while "in Yosemite" gives the place a life and nature ? Are newer charities aiming to be perceived as more a 'movement' (like an 'ism' or 'ry' 'Freemasonry'?) - do NGO's want to be less answerable to members, not their mission statement? is the notion of "belonging to a formal club" less attractive to potential employees or contributors ? hmm – Tom22 Apr 16 '18 at 3:44

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