Have you got a cold?
Have you got flu?
Have you got the flu?

Why can't we say a flu or the cold in the previous examples?


We can precede cold with both a and the when we make a generic reference, as in ‘A cold can be difficult to get rid of in the winter’, and ‘The common cold is found everywhere in the world.’ In conversation we use a cold when we introduce it as a new topic of conversation (‘I’ve got a cold’), but the when we refer to it once it’s been mentioned (‘How long have you had the cold?’)

The reason why we say, or can say, the flu in contexts where we have to say a cold has its origins in the word’s history. Influenza is an Italian word having the basic meaning of ‘influence’, but which came to mean ‘visitation’ and ‘outbreak’ and then ‘epidemic’. Its first recorded use in English was in 1743:

News from Rome of a contagious Distemper raging there, call'd the Influenza.

The definite article has been possible ever since. In actual fact, influenza occurs mostly with the zero article, as this nGram shows.

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    Re your last sentence, OP asked about flu, not influenza. And as this NGram shows, "has the flu" is far more common than "has flu". – FumbleFingers Mar 11 '12 at 22:22
  • @FumbleFingers: Good point. Still, I think I would always omit 'the' myself. – Barrie England Mar 12 '12 at 7:11
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    Yeah, I probably would myself. Referring to someone having the flu sounds a bit dated/rustic to me - like saying they've got the plague or something. – FumbleFingers Mar 12 '12 at 12:44
  • As a native speaker of American English, I find How long have you had a cold? unremarkable (perfectly acceptable) even after it has been introduced into the discourse. Also, in fact, we can say How long have you had the cold? to bring up (introduce) the person's cold as a topic. – Alan Carmack Nov 26 '16 at 17:26

Because there are many colds, but only one flu. The flu has always been considered a disease, but it is only very recently that the cold has also been considered so. Originally, catching a cold was believed to be just something that happened to you based on enviromental conditions - like a headache. Even now, worried parents will warn their children that if they get cold and wet, they are likely to catch a cold, which we now know to be entirely incorrect.

So every cold was a separate thing, unique to the person who had it - saying "I've got the cold" would be like saying "I've got the headache". A case of the flu on the other hand was NOT separate, but a part of the larger flu outbreak.

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    I this this is right. What we are saying is "I have the influenza virus", and "I have a cold virus". Of course, often flu is misused, to mean "an influenza-like illness", which confuses the issue, but these are not proper influenza. – Schroedingers Cat Mar 10 '12 at 14:43
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    There is not one flu: influenza is a classification of many sub-types of flu virus - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Influenza#Types_of_virus – msanford Mar 11 '12 at 4:04
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    @msanford: I'm sure what Benubird means is that in any given year, one particular strain of flu is far more likely to pass through any given country than other strains. This is what enables the medical profession to plan ahead and give all our elderly people the appropriate vaccine every autumn. And getting even more localised, almost everyone who succumbs in some particular town, for example, will be catching the same strain as others falling sick around the same time in that area. So it's the flu of the moment. – FumbleFingers Mar 11 '12 at 22:29
  • So why is it "the bends" but just "chills"? I'm sorry, I just don't believe this. – David Schwartz Feb 10 '13 at 11:18

The way articles are used in English is basically unpredictable. We just have a sense that some words require particular articles and some require other ones and some require none at all. They defy any attempt to find a logical pattern.

This isn't a satisfying answer, but it's all we've got. Why do we say "going to the Amazon River" but "going to Lake Ontario"? We say "a hernia", "the bends", and just plain "emphysema".

Update: You'll notice in the comments that people keep trying to make up rules to explain this, but the rules are either correct as often as they're incorrect or just list the cases and say what happens in each case. There's simply no pattern to it.

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    "going to the Amazon River" is equivalent to "going to the Ontario Lake". The difference is that "the Amazon River" means the river in the Amazon, while "Lake Ontario" means the lake named Ontario. – Benubird Mar 10 '12 at 13:38
  • That's nonsense. The Amazon River has, as its proper name, "Amazon River". It is not "the river in the Amazon" because in that case, "river" would not be capitalized. In any event, even if this were correct, it wouldn't tell us anything because it tells us nothing about why rivers are different from lakes. It would still be saying "rivers are, lakes aren't, and that's that". (And while you could say "the Ontario Lake", you must say "the Amazon River". The difference is purely arbitrary. One just is, one just isn't. Period.) – David Schwartz Mar 10 '12 at 13:41
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    No, this is a part of the structure of the name. When a name is of the format "Identifier Type" (e.g. amazon river) it must be prefixed with "the". When a name is of the format "type identifier" (e.g. lake ontario), it doesn't need the article. "hernia" describes an object, "bends" is plural, and "emphysema" is a base case. – Benubird Mar 10 '12 at 13:52
  • @Benubird: Yes, you can give all these characteristics names. That doesn't give them any rhyme or reason. Why are rivers always "identifier types"? Why are lakes "type identifiers"? Why does "hernia" describe an object rather than the condition of having one as "cancer" does? Why must you say "I have the bends" but you can say "I have chills"? They're both plural. Your explanation doesn't actually explain anything. – David Schwartz Mar 10 '12 at 21:51
  • I don't know why they're usually "identifier type". Presumably some historic reason, but that's beyond the scope here - I'm not trying to say why it's "amazon river" not "river amazon", only answering why the first version is prefixed with "the" and the second isn't. I don't know why "hernia" is an object not a condition, but because it is, is the reason you say "a hernia". Note that "I have cancer" means the disease, and "I have A cancer" means a specific tumor. Similarly "I have a hernia" and "I have herniation". Why "cancer", not "canceration"? I don't know. Why "mice" and not "mouses"? – Benubird Mar 12 '12 at 18:57

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