Posted by Neal on May 9, 2011
I was surprised to see some linguistic observation in Entertainment Weekly‘s review of the movie Prom last week :
A mere decade ago, the event was still called ”the prom,” but in Prom, the shrewdly wholesome and likable new Disney teen movie directed by Joe Nussbaum, it is never referred to as anything but ”prom” — as in, Who are you asking to prom? It’s not even fully clear whether prom is now a noun or a verb (are you going to prom? We’re going to prom like it’s 2099!). And that signals that the prom is no mere party but, in fact, a state of mind.
That’s right, when you can’t tell if word X is a noun or a verb, that means X is a state of mind. That’s deeper linguistic theory than I can explain in a blog post, so I’ll leave it alone. Instead, I want to look into whether it’s more common these days to use prom with or without the definite article.
Going by this graph from the Google Ngram viewer, it looks like the prom is still well in the lead, but EW is right that people have begun to use plain old prom a lot more in the last decade. (Click to see the full image.)
Even so, it’s been around almost as long as proms have. Check out this attestation from 1913, in a college fraternity magazine:
I can’t quite remember how I talked about (the) prom when I was in high school. We had both a junior and a senior prom, and I definitely can say that when you’re specifying which one, it sounds better to use the definite article. This is corroborated by Google Ngram search for the “go to (the) prom” strings with junior or senior before prom: The lines for the article-less prom ngrams disappear. But when I asked Loretto to go to (the) prom my junior year, or Julie my senior year, I can’t remember if I used the or not. (This was in Houston, Texas, in the mid-1980s.) In any case, plain prom sounds natural enough to me that I can certainly imagine myself having used it.
I wonder if the loss of the article has to do with the fact that another high-school ritual that, graduation, usually doesn’t take an article. Or that (the) prom has accumulated such disproportionate importance that it’s referred to like a holiday. Maybe there’s no good explanation at all, the same way that there’s no accounting (that I know of) for why British English has in hospital while American English has in the hospital. Comments are open: Do you refer to prom or the prom? How old are you and where are you from?