Strange bedfellows

Non-metonymic English proper names and the indefinite article


  • Leszek Berezowski University of Wrocław


English, proper name, indefinite article, adjective


The paper explores the use of the indefinite article with English proper names that are non-metonymic, e.g. an angry Clinton, an independent Poland, etc. In contrast to indefinite proper name uses that metonymically stand for works of art or qualities of famous individuals, e.g. a van Gogh or a Napoleon, non-metonymic uses of proper names with the indefinite article have been researched rarely, in quite divergent terms and on the basis of few examples. In order to verify the claims of existing accounts and improve on them the paper draws on corpus data from COCA and COHA and shows that personal proper names tend to be used with the indefinite article in the presence of modifiers designating temporary conditions and geographical proper names tend to take the indefinite article when the context leaves no doubt that they refer to stages in the history of their referents. In the latter case it is additionally shown that indefinite article usages cluster in the years of struggle to achieve the attributes designated by the modifiers, e.g. independence, but fade off once the struggle is over. Based on such findings the paper claims that English non-metonymic proper names take the indefinite article under the same general conditions as any other English nominals and disproves the contention that in such usages the difference between the definite and indefinite articles is neutralized.




How to Cite

Berezowski, L. (2021). Strange bedfellows: Non-metonymic English proper names and the indefinite article. Finnish Journal of Linguistics, 34, 7–37. Retrieved from