The Exceptions That Make The Rules

March 2013

An enigma that broke all the rules

First a conundrum: which is the odd one out?

1. The White House
2. The Eiffel Tower
3. Buckingham Palace

Here are some possible answers:

— The White House because it’s not in Europe.
— The White House because it is the only one preceded by an adjective.
— The White House because it is not named after someone.

— The Eiffel Tower because it is not home to a head of state.
— The Eiffel Tower because it is a tower and the others are homes.
— The Eiffel Tower because it is an unusual shape.

— Buckingham Palace because it was built in the 18th century, not the 19th.
— Buckingham Palace because it represents a monarchy, while the other two represent republics.
— Buckingham Palace because it is the only one without ‘the’.

It is this final, grammatical answer that intrigues me. Why does it not have a definite article while the other two do? At first sight it might seem like there is a subtle rule at play here. But in fact there are three separate subtle rules at play. When I put this question on Facebook, I got the following reply from a friend I’ll call Dave.

Use it with: mountain ranges, rivers, seas, oceans, canals, island chains, deserts, forests, gulfs, peninsulas. But do not use it for a single mountain or lake. As well as, plurals of countries, (the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates), geographical areas (the West), and countries containing a countable noun (Kingdom, Republic, Union, etc).

Use it for: names that have the structure ___ of ___ (the Houses of Parliament, the University of Oxford, the Isle of Man).

Use it for: buildings such as museums, memorials, galleries, hotels, restaurants, pubs, cinemas, theatres, clubs, libraries, etc, especially if they have an adjective.

Hence, we have ‘the White House’. Fair enough.

However, do not use it when the first word is the name of a person, especially if it ends in -s or a person’s name in the possessive form (St. Paul’s Cathedral).

Thus ‘Buckingham Palace’, which is named after the Duke of Buckingham, does not and should not have it. However, this raises the question, why does the Eiffel Tower have it? That’s a person’s name. And this raises a further point: why do we have the Rockefeller Center, the Kennedy Space Centre, the Saatchi Gallery, and so on including plenty of pubs and monuments, e.g. the Queen Vic and the Queen Victoria monument that is ubiquitous to so many Commonwealth towns?

To be fair to Dave, he did qualify that there are exceptions and he gave a very comprehensive answer, but there are so many exceptions and so little rhyme or reason to explain the inconsistency, which kind of reminds me of this tangled question on QI about there being more exceptions to a rule than examples of it.

One likely reason for ‘the Eiffel Tower’ is that with definite articles being more common in French than in English, the ‘la’ in ‘La Tour Eiffel’ was calqued into English. This means that the use of ‘the’ in ‘the Eiffel Tower’ is in fact an exception rather than a norm.

But then is it an exception? Depending on how you group the three buildings, here we could have an example where the exception is making the rule. You could construe the use of the definite article as conforming to a norm of grandiosity in the premier national buildings of their respective countries, in-keeping with the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Sydney Opera House, the Burj Dubai and so on. And so here we can say quite literally that the exception both proves the rule and follows the rule! At the root of this is the fact it’s a norm for French speakers but an exception for English speakers. The truth is that the three titles are what they are for different reasons. Each of them are exceptions in this context and each of them are perfectly standard examples of the rule they demonstrate. It may be odd but it’s simply a matter of convention. Take this typically witty piece in The Guardian from 2010 to get an overview of definite article’s idiosyncratic usage.

But where does this fit into to English teaching? As we saw at the beginning, you can group things differently. Part of our thinking as analog beings is the natural inclination to identify similarities and make connections between things. As Steven Pinker points out in Words and Rules (1999), “We lump things together based on resemblances, contiguity in time or place, and cause or effect.” This obviously has important pedagogical and linguistic implications for us as language teachers.

This idea of resemblances was one of Wittgenstein’s most important ideas. Take this famous passage from Philosophical Investigations (1953)

66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!—Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball- games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.—Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.— And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family. And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a “number”? Well, perhaps because it has a—direct—relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relation- ship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our con- cept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres. But if someone wished to say: “There is something common to all these constructions—namely the disjunction of all their common properties”—I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: “Something runs through the whole thread— namely the continuous overlapping of those fibres”.

Things are not always so easy to define. Take a book or a bird.— We have classical concepts of these things, but the rules can easily be broken to include a scroll or an ebook, or a penguin or an ostrich. This is the point. Breaking rules is often good. It’s creative and it stretches one’s imagination and communicative abilities. It means thinking outside the box and challenging lazy stereotypes.

So try this game to get students to state which word is the odd one out and why. Get them to articulate their associations and justify their logic, to make inferences and debate their choices, to think critically and voice their emotional biases. It works at every level and thus is very suitable for mixed-level groups. The higher the level, the more nonsensical and imaginative you can make it. An important point of this game and indeed this post is that there’s not always a need for a clear cut right and wrong answer, however you can make it a bit more fun by awarding points for coherent reasoning or humour.


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Some of these slides were adapted from
various ESL websites including bogglesworld.