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"Is Professor" Versus "Is A Professor":
When describing a professor's academic position, it is common to say that the person "is professor" rather than "is a professor." That is, you might say, "John Doe is professor of chemistry" rather than "John Doe is a professor of chemistry."

  I'm curious, why is that? We don't say, "Sarah is doctor," we say "Sarah is a doctor." We don't say, "Edward is accountant," we say "Edward is an accountant." Is the idea that academic titles are more formal, so we drop the article much as we would when describing a formal title (as in, "John G. Roberts is Chief Justice of the United States.")? Either way, it always sounds odd to my ear.
martinned (mail) (www):
Maybe it's because I'm not a native speaker, but I would describe someone onle as a professor or the professor, depending on whether we're talking about a specific chair or about an academic appointment generally.
Since there is only one Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, describing him as "a chief justice" would be strange. That has nothing to do with formality.
10.7.2008 2:01pm
Thoughtful (mail):
I believe when you say, "X is professor" you are referring to X's title, while when you say "X is a professor" you are referring to his occupation.

It's the same for doctors and other professionals:

X is a doctor.

X is doctor of medicine at UCLA medical school.
10.7.2008 2:01pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
Saying "Edward is Accountant of Payables" or "Sarah is Doctor of Radiology" may be. Perhaps the "of" clause has something to do with it?
10.7.2008 2:02pm
Mike S..:
It is endowed chair envy. It is said by someone who wishes he were the John Doe Professor of Chemistry at Podunk U. Normal people, even normal academics say "she is a professor of chemistry."
10.7.2008 2:02pm
KWC (mail):
My guesses:

(1) it harkens back to a time when there was just one professor per subject. All others were probably just "assistant" or "associates."

(2) it's considered more of a title than a profession. When something is a title, it's not unusual to have no article. John Doe is dean of Stanford. John Doe is shift supervisor at Starbucks.
10.7.2008 2:04pm
Philistine (mail):
I think it's more that using "is professor" is used when describing something like a title (or at least description where the emphasis is on the position).

I've don't think I've ever seen the use of "is professor" without both a reference to a professor of what, and the place where he was a professor.

Thus--John Doe is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Anywhere.

Similarly--"Joe Blow is offensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins." Even though one wouldn't say "Joe Blow is offensive tackle."

Or--Joe Schmoe is Special Assistant to the President (even though the President has several special assistants).
10.7.2008 2:05pm
Sammy Finkelman (mail):
This should be obvious. We say someone is Professor of Chemistry but not Doctor of Medicine or whatever because that is a job title. It is never Professor of Chemistry alone, by the way, but always Professor of Chemistry at X Y.

If you don't mention the affiliation, then you have to say a professor of chemistry and you can also say a priofesor of chemistry.
When you leave out teh word a the word professor must always be imagined as capitalized.

And I think this is actallya shortening. It might even be So and so Professior of Chemistry. The same as maybe Dean of Students.

No 'a" because there is only one of them. At least in theory.
10.7.2008 2:06pm
Accountant Ed (mail):
"Doctor" and "Professor" are used both as formal titles and as identifiers, so that causes the confusion. No one says "I'm off to see Accountant Ed."
10.7.2008 2:07pm
Bill Quick (mail) (www):
Clarity. "Is professor" is decidedly unclear when there is more than one professor. Even limiting it somewhat: "John Doe is Professor of Chemistry at UCLA" is in error, unless there is only one such professor.

In general, "Is Professor" is not, from a meaning and clarity point of view, good usage at all.

No doubt this is why the usage has currency in our halls of higher learning.
10.7.2008 2:10pm
some dude:
I think Philistine is right.

"John Doe is professor of chemistry" sounds like something the Incredible Hulk would say. Or, if you take it as John Doe is "professor of chemistry," it sounds overly whimsical. Like he is a sage busy professing "chemistry."
10.7.2008 2:16pm
Serendipity:
I studied French in college and I do recall that when referring to one's occupation the construction was il est avocat (he is lawayer) rather than il est un avocat (he is a lawyer). If this is true of the other Romance languages, I wonder if there is some arcane grammatical distinction that we somehow ended up with and no one remembers why anymore. I certainly don't remember why the rule was that way in French and I'm certain there were probably times when "il est un avocat" was appropriate.
10.7.2008 2:17pm
Norman Bates (mail):
I think Thoughtful and Phillistine have it right:

We use the professional position without the definite article when providing title and location; with the definite article when just designating the profession:

(1a) Sara is a doctor.
(1b) Sara is doctor of oncology at Cedars-Sinai Hospital

(2a) Mark is a professor
(2b) Mark is professor of Aztec Studies at the University of Xoaca.

More generally

(3a) [Name] is a [profession]
(3b) [Name] is [profession] of [specific description of position]

Maybe the absence of the indefinite article in the b examples above is an implicit version of the definite article English speakers use when indicating uniqueness, e.g., as in the case of the sole holder of an official position.
10.7.2008 2:21pm
Litigator-London:
Surely the usage is that there is no article where a specific chair is referred to:

(i)Bloggs is Regius Professor of Roman Law in the University of Oxford(specific chair)

(ii)Bloggs is a law professor at Oxford (could be the holder of any one of many chairs).
10.7.2008 2:21pm
Burt Likko (mail) (www):
Something similar applies to lawyers, albeit with different verbiage:

"Snidley Poisonpen is counsel to (or for) XYZ Corp."
"Snidley Poisonpen is an attorney for XYZ Corp."
10.7.2008 2:31pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
We use the professional position without the definite article when providing title and location

Sometimes. It doesn't hurt my ears either to say "Tom Brady is the quarterback of the New England Patriots", "Sara is the Regius Professor of Roman Law in the University of Oxford", "George Bush is the President of the United States of America."

Uniqueness is (a?) part of it: "Joe Biden is Senator from Delaware" or "Randy Moss is Wide Receiver for the New England Patriots" doesn't work, except maybe as a footnote where clearly we are adding details about the person who is already known as an author or party guest, and not about the position.
10.7.2008 2:36pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
This usage does arise from French, which had only recently acquired articles from the Arabic influence on the Latin languages, and adopted its own way to use them, in this usage, to distinguish between a title and an occupation, or to clarify whether the position was unique or could be held by others.

This corresponds in logic to the application of a choice function, picking a member from a set, as distinct from stating the attributes on which a choice might be made. The ordinary language notion is also expressed with the "quantifier" symbol "for any" (inverted A) or "there is at least one" (reverse E).
10.7.2008 2:37pm
Boyd G (www):
Not being in academia, maybe I'm outside the loop, but "is professor of basketweaving" sounds patently wrong to me. As has been said earlier by other commenters, it must be a singular designation for that to seem right, such as "is Professor of Basketweaving."


It is endowed chair envy.


A well-endowed chair, no doubt.
10.7.2008 2:41pm
The Decider:
This is an easy question, and Mike S and KWC are partly right.

No one would argue that there's anything wrong with "John Doe is Vice President of Operations at Ford." There is one VP of Ops at Ford; a listener would implicitly knows this, even if he wasn't familiar with Ford's corporate hierarchy. The antecedent article "the" is very commonly removed, whereas "a" almost never is. This either goes back to the days when there was only one professor per department or it reflects a presumption of endowed chair status.

Interestingly, it's common for employees of both the CIA and the FBI to refer to their organizations as only "CIA" and "FBI," with no antecedent article. When referring to three letter organizations not their own, through, "the" is always present.
10.7.2008 2:46pm
JamesB (mail):
From the British usage, where there is (by definition) only one Professor. It is the the equivalant of Chair of a Department in that sense...
10.7.2008 2:49pm
Robert S. Porter (mail) (www):
I don't think it's universally one or the other. It depends upon the context. I certainly don't leave out the "a" at all times. This is how I see it:

Formally:
1) Orin Kerr is Professor of Law, George Washington University.
Informally:
2a) Orin Kerr is a professor of law at George Washington University
2b) Orin Kerr is a law professor at George Washington University.

If you're really concerned about the usage get in contact with Bill Poser (a frequent Volohk Conspiracy reader) or the rest of the Language Log gang.
10.7.2008 2:52pm
Jay Myers:
One is referring to the individual's university rank and the other is referring to their occupation. Often, even lecturers and adjunct faculty are referred to as "a professor" but only someone who has reached the pinnacle of the promotion pyramid is referred to as "Professor of foo" (as opposed to "Assistant Professor of foo" or "Associate Professor of foo").

Also, to be used correctly 'foo' must be the full name of their department and not the general name for their field. So you would say someone is Professor of mathematical science and not that they are Professor of math.
10.7.2008 2:53pm
NYOPINION (mail):
common by about 1.4:1 - 2.4 million hits vs 1.7 but in academe (.edu) "is a" actually beats "is" by 1.65:1
10.7.2008 2:57pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I really don't find it common at all for people to say, "John is professor of English," rather than, "John is a professor of English." Who talks like that? Professors?
10.7.2008 2:58pm
OrinKerr:
NYOPINION,

Your .edu query is wrong, I believe; it's more common in .edu as well.
10.7.2008 3:06pm
Sammy Finkelman (mail):
"John G. Roberts is Chief Justice of the United States."

No we wouldn't say that, even though theer is only one. But we would say "David Paterson is Governor of New York" or "george W. Bush is president of the United States."

Theer are two senators and if we want to say Senior or Junior we say something like "Joe Biden is the Senior Senator from Delaware." So and so is "a member of Congress" but maybe "Congressman from the xxth District"

I think we don't quite think of "Chief Justice" as an independently standing concept. Secretary of Agriculture maybe, but not Chief Justice. That would always be "the Chief Justice" We'd write so and so is Secretary of Agriculture at the bottom of an Op-ed piece buit otherwise probably not unless you were listing many diffeernt officeholders. Actuall if you were listing many then you could also say "John Roberts of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, so and so is an Associate Justice, so and so is.."

William Howard Taft was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as well as President.

We have to think over examples - and THEN we can try to deduce the rules.

In the case of college professors it probably does mostly stem from the usage in the case of an Endowed Chair (where there is only one of them and it is a job title) At must always be used.
10.7.2008 3:07pm
Bruce:
It's the Russian influence.
10.7.2008 3:39pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Should be "Is Russian influence."
10.7.2008 3:53pm
John D (mail):
Some comments:

Serendipity
German uses the same construction used in French, that is, "Ich bin Professor" (and for that matter, "Ich bin Berliner"). I'm not certain if this is general through the Romance (or Germanic) languages, although it is true in Italian as well.

John Rowland
This usage does arise from French, which had only recently acquired articles from the Arabic influence on the Latin languages, and adopted its own way to use them, in this usage, to distinguish between a title and an occupation, or to clarify whether the position was unique or could be held by others.


Can you provide a source on this? After all, the definite articles in the Romance languages come from the Latin demonstrative articles. On Wikipedia (for what it's worth), the claim is made that the influence might have been Greek (Vulgar Latin).
10.7.2008 4:03pm
krs:
The growing influence of Borat, perhaps?
10.7.2008 4:07pm
Gaius Obvious (mail):
English is not consistent. Think of the similar "to/in hospital" versus "to/in the hospital" variation between British English and American English, and the parallel "in prison" phrase. American English: "John was taken to the hospital last night for chest pain." British English: "John was taken to hospital last night for chest pain." Both countries: "John was sent to prison for his crime." Nowhere: "John was taken to the prison for his crime."

Another American/British "the" variant: "I'm late because of an accident on I-95." British English: "I'm late because of an accident on the M-25."
10.7.2008 4:18pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
"John G. Roberts is Chief Justice of the United States."

No we wouldn't say that, even though theer is only one
We wouldn't? I would.
10.7.2008 4:25pm
ys:

Jon Roland :
This usage does arise from French, which had only recently acquired articles from the Arabic influence on the Latin languages, and adopted its own way to use them, in this usage, to distinguish between a title and an occupation, or to clarify whether the position was unique or could be held by others.

It not correct (that's the proper way to say it in Russian, not "is not correct" :-). All the Romance, Germanic and Semitic languages derive definite articles from demonstrative pronouns in their respective language groups. E.g, all the Romance ones get them from the Latin illus, illa, and so on. Similarly for personal pronouns (e.g., "il" in French). Arabic and Hebrew have the same type of internal derivation also, but there was no transfer from Arabic to French. Even the only Slavic language to have definite articles (Bulgarian, and Macedonian, if you consider it separate) derives them from demonstrative pronouns.
If you guys think this is the strangest case of article usage, it's certainly not the way it seems to a language learner starting from from a non-article language. A universal rule that makes sense is very hard to come, and as people pointed out, there are special quirks in various languages (e.g., rules of when articles are used with words for relatives in Italian). Conversely, learning a language without articles from a language with, one may be lost for a while until one realizes that you can get by just fine by other means.
10.7.2008 4:26pm
krs:
"It's good to be king." or "It's good to be the king." ?
10.7.2008 4:36pm
vassil petrov (mail):
In Bulgarian there is no indefinite article, so we don't have that problem. I think this is true of all Slavic languages.
10.7.2008 4:47pm
NYOPINION (mail):
Orin: my mistake indeed (but smaller margin)

416,000 for "is professor of" site:edu.

346,000 for "is a professor of" site:edu.
10.7.2008 4:48pm
ys:

krs:
"It's good to be king." or "It's good to be the king." ?

'Tis good to be simple

(OK, in the original it is "'tis the gift to be simple", but I have no idea why it uses "the" given that it lists a whole bunch of other gifts the same way).
10.7.2008 4:54pm
ys:

vassil petrov :
In Bulgarian there is no indefinite article, so we don't have that problem. I think this is true of all Slavic languages.

Right, not the "professor" problem. All the other Slavic languages have neither definite nor indefinite article (subject to whether you consider Macedonian a different language). That is why I was amused when the dispute of "Ukraine" vs. "the Ukraine" arose in the 90's. It was purely for the English-speaking world consumption.
10.7.2008 5:00pm
vassil petrov (mail):
Right, not the "professor" problem. All the other Slavic languages have neither definite nor indefinite article (subject to whether you consider Macedonian a different language). That is why I was amused when the dispute of "Ukraine" vs. "the Ukraine" arose in the 90's. It was purely for the English-speaking world consumption.

Bulgarian has DEFINITE article, unlike all other Slavic languages. It is SUFFIXED. There are other differences as well (for example, no cases). In Bulgaria we consider Macedonian to be southwestern dialect of Bulgarian. But don't tell that to any Macedonian.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulgarian_language
10.7.2008 5:06pm
Bama 1L:
I can't think of any time I've run across "is professor" except in a sentence of the form "John Q. Doe is professor of knowledge studies at Nowhere State University" that appears on a book jacket, in a prepared speaker introduction, or similar formal context. It is sui generis, in other words, and I don't see why you need to derive a rule.

That said, in similar contexts I think you would also encounter "Jane Q. Roe is general counsel and vice president of XYZ Corporation" and "Bob Z. Public is assistant undersecretary of the Federal Department of Bureaucracy." Titles don't require articles, but we only observe that rule in the context of this type of formal introduction.
10.7.2008 5:10pm
ys:

In Bulgaria we consider Macedonian to be southwestern dialect of Bulgarian. But don't tell that to any Macedonian.

I figured :-) Next one would say there is a (or there is no) Bosnian language, and where will it stop?
10.7.2008 5:17pm
vassil petrov (mail):
I figured :-) Next one would say there is a (or there is no) Bosnian language, and where will it stop?

By the gates of Vienna, I guess.
Just kidding.
I wish you all the best.
10.7.2008 5:22pm
one of many:
"A" is an indefinite article, when you are referring to a non-specific (indefinite) title held by a person the "a" should be used, when referring to a specific title the "the" (definite article) should be used if necessary for clarity. In your example if there were only one professor of chemistry to whom the phrase would apply it would be appropriate to refer to "John Doe professor of chemistry" or John Doe the professor of chemistry" while if there are multiple professors of chemistry the use would be "John Doe a professor of chemistry". In the search however many of those examples should use an "a", however as has been noted by JamesB this seems to be a hold over from Europe where there was only one professor of a given field at a school (title inflation?).
10.7.2008 5:38pm
ys:

By the gates of Vienna, I guess.

I did not get this reference and I am curious. Do you mean 1914 or maybe 1683?
10.7.2008 5:41pm
vassil petrov (mail):
1683
10.7.2008 5:42pm
Mr. X (www):
I've only ever hear the "is professor" formation when referring to a named professorship, e.g. "Orin Kerr is Harlan Sanders Professor of Poultry Studies."
10.7.2008 5:43pm
Christopher Phelan (mail):
Sidney Wang: What meaning of this, Mr. Twain?
Lionel Twain: I will tell you, Mr. Wang, if YOU can tell ME why a man who possesses one of the most brilliant minds of this century can't say his *prepositions* or *articles!* "What IS THE," Mr. Wang! "What IS THE meaning of this?"
Sidney Wang: That what I said! "What meaning of this?"
10.7.2008 5:52pm
ys:

Sidney Wang: That what I said! "What meaning of this?"

And he right! Speakers of Russian and Hebrew would concur.
10.7.2008 6:27pm
ys:
1683
Makes some sense. But is it an adhoc phrase (gates of Vienna) or a standard expression in Bulgarian?
10.7.2008 6:29pm
Timothy Sandefur (mail) (www):
Yeah, but then there's them English folk who say "I went to university" and drop the "the," as though "university" were Heaven (which it certainly is not). They do the same thing with "hospital," as though hospital is a state of mind or something. What the hell? Thank god my ancestors fought and died for our right to have appropriate definite articles.

Hey, is that what the articles of confederation were about?
10.7.2008 6:35pm
Colin Fraizer (mail):
I always have a Dickens of a time with articles. Can we just say, "The law is ass?"
10.7.2008 6:37pm
Gaius Obvious (mail):

Yeah, but then there's them English folk who say "I went to university" and drop the "the," as though "university" were Heaven (which it certainly is not). They do the same thing with "hospital," as though hospital is a state of mind or something. What the hell?


As I said above, both countires do that same with "prison." In fact, that's how I know of that usage. I (an American) asked a Brit once about the lack of an article for "hospital" usage and she pointed out it's used the same way as Americans use "prison."
10.7.2008 8:36pm
Colin Fraizer (mail):
Gaius Obvious, is that a commentary on the NHS? 8-)
10.7.2008 8:54pm
trad and anon:
I would never say someone "is professor." I would use that only in the context where it's an official title, like "is Professor of Mathematics at State University." And I'd only use it for a generic full professor, not for an associate professor, assistant professor, or holder of an endowed chair (in which case I'd' say "is Rich Donor Professor of Mathematics at State University.")
10.7.2008 11:21pm
Sbard (mail):

Yeah, but then there's them English folk who say "I went to university" and drop the "the," as though "university" were Heaven (which it certainly is not). They do the same thing with "hospital," as though hospital is a state of mind or something. What the hell?


In the US we'd say pretty much the same thing, except we'd say it as, "I went to college."
10.8.2008 1:32pm