Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


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?


47 Responses to “Prom”

  1. Jesse said

    I graduated from high school in 2004, and I’m from the Chicago suburbs. I don’t remember any of my peers ever referring to “the prom”. We didn’t call it “the homecoming dance” either. We went to homecoming. We asked our dates to go to prom. No one ever asked anyone to prom (verb) with them. That would have gotten a quizzical look and a rejection.
    It was the same with TWIRP (turnabout) and social. There wasn’t a definite article in the school calendar.

  2. Andrew said

    I graduated from high school in 2000 in California and we always said “prom,” not “the prom.”

  3. lynneguist said

    If you’re interested, there are a lot of comments w/ perceptions of the phenom at my blog:

  4. H. R. Freckenhorst said

    I graduated from high school in Detroit in 1967, and it was “the prom.” Like Jesse, though [so much later!], we had anarthrous “homecoming.”

  5. Joshua said

    Brookline, MA in 1982 “the Prom”

    my step-daughter also says “the Prom” in 2011, Havertown, PA

  6. The Ridger said

    Oak Ridge, TN… (whew! not the oldest one here) 1971. If I recall, we said used the article. But I didn’t go, or want to go, so I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. Oddly, though, I genuinely think it was Senior Prom, like Senior Dress-down Day, without an article and with capital letters. Like a holiday (which the latter certainly was – jeans for girls! whoo-hoo!)

  7. Erik Zyman Carrasco said

    Nineteen-year-old Manhattanite here. Always prom with no article.

    With regard to the claim that “It’s not even fully clear whether prom is now a noun or a verb,” the judgments for me are extremely clear:

    (1) Who are you asking to prom? [noun]
    (2) are you going to prom? [noun]
    (3) We’re going to prom like it’s 2099! [verb]

    In each case the other possibility exists for me, but is far less likely.

    One hopes that author wasn’t assuming that every single instance of prom with no article in sight had to belong to the same lexical category…

    • The Ridger said

      I agree with your judgements. I would never use “prom” as a verb (I don’t think) but it’s pretty clear. And why not “prom” – like “party”?

    • Neal said

      For (1) and (2), certainly, prom is a noun; in fact, a full noun phrase, given that it needs no article. But in (3), it could also be a noun phrase, the same way as Cleveland is in We’re going to Cleveland like it’s 2099!. Of course, that totally disregards the Prince lyric We’re going to party like it’s 1999!, in which the space between to and it’s is definitely a verb, but so what? I wonder how the line is pronounced in the movie: going to prom, or gonna prom? If the latter, then it’s definitely a verb after all.

      • The Ridger said

        What on earth would it mean as a noun? I can see a syntactic reading, but not a sensible one.

      • Neal said

        For all three, prom as a noun (an anarthrous NP, or a proper noun) means the dance.

      • The Ridger said

        But for me, “I’m going to (the dance) like it’s 2099” doesn’t actually mean anything. How do you go to a dance like it’s 2099? Dress funny?

        I guess it’s just that I’d say “I’m going to prom like it was in 2099” …

      • Ellen K. said

        Prince doesn’t sing “we’re going to party like it’s 1999”, he sings “we’re gonna party like it’s 1999”. And I think in many varies of spoken English, if one says “We’re going to” (rather than “we’re gonna”), what follows is going to be a noun. (And there I go showing how that doesn’t hold for written English.)

      • Ellen K. said

        Oops… I see you did acknowledge the pronuncation difference, just not in connection with the Prince line.

  8. Ed said

    of course, if you ask the computational linguists who work on parsers, not being able to tell whether ‘prom’ is a noun or verb requires two states of mind.

    also, in my experience as a high schooler (early 2000s, midwest), ‘prom’ was anarthrous the vast majority of the time.

  9. Philip Whitman said

    I graduated from high school in Albany, Georgia in 1962. We always said “the prom”, never just “prom”.

    • Florence said

      Give it up for Philip Waltman! I think anyone who graduated in our era said, “THE prom.” My popular grandson recently talked about taking his girlfriend to THE prom. He knows he doesn’t have to go with the flow to be’s ONE little article…but it changes the delivery.

  10. Glen said

    Houston, 1990 graduation. I would definitely have said “the prom,” but “prom” wouldn’t have sounded totally unnatural.

    Have you already addressed “graduate high school” vs. “graduate from high school” in another blog post? I’m a ‘from’ guy, and its omission still grates me a little… though I confess to catching myself omitting it from time to time recently.

    • The Ridger said

      Merriam Webster puts it like this:

      In the 19th century the transitive sense (to grant an academic degree or diploma to) was prescribed; the intransitive (I graduated from college) was condemned. The intransitive prevailed nonetheless, and today it is the sense likely to be prescribed and the newer transitive sense (she graduated high school) the one condemned. All three are standard. The intransitive is currently the most common, the new transitive the least common.

  11. Jonathon said

    I graduated in 1999 in Salt Lake City, and I think I always said (and probably heard) “prom”.

  12. 1979 HS grad from Syracuse, NY. We definitely used THE prom.

    When I started to hear it as just prom, it sounded to me like your English “in hospital” example. Not quite used to it yet, but it is more familiar as it is trending that way.

    Seems that this happens as words move away from referring to a narrower, more concrete target (THE prom is a particular dance event at a specific time & place) to a more abstract or more general idea.

    Just as you do attend “a school” or “the school” down the block, you “go to school” and are “in school”; the articles drop as you conceive it more abstractly, as a condition or state of being (if not state of mind).

    I’m assuming that the English “in hospital” is conceptually the same as “in school”; they think of more as a condition/state than the place we think of when we say “in the hospital.”

  13. Lois said

    I graduated from high school in California 20 years ago and I’m fairly sure I never used the definite article. However, I have to say that the definite article does not sound ‘wrong’ to me, either. Odd, but I probably wouldn’t criticize the speaker.

  14. Florence said

    They say you’re only as big as the things that anger you, so I guess I’m not big. I write for grammatical correctness, and I also go by ear. THE prom is just natural. Leaving out the article is just so pop. The English language is being watered down as it is, and I hate that.

    Also wondered if “you guys” will ever go away.
    No matter what part of the country you live in, it’s still “you guys.” Even the most educated use that phrase. Arrghhh!!

  15. Florence said

    I graduated in 1962, and we had our share of pop phrases, like “real gone daddy” and “you’re so square”, but we wouldn’t THINK of leaving the article out of the prom.

  16. Giulia said

    Hi! Your blog has been nominated for our Top 100 Language Lovers 2011 competition.
    Read more here:
    Good luck!
    Giulia – On behalf of the and Lexiophiles team

  17. The Ridger said

    Hey – today’s episode of The Middle is about Axl asking the wrong girl “to prom” – and everybody is saying “prom” instead of “the prom”!

    • Florence said

      I saw that too. Also saw the word “prom” as a verb. While I cannot change their pop-thinking, I choose to stand in defense of our English language as we have known it.

      • The Ridger said

        Give it up, Florence. Language changes. It’s a fact of life. You will only make yourself crazy and disliked by staking out one snapshot as “as we have known it”. Do you bewail the loss of “ye”, for instance?

        Also, amusingly, although all the dialog referred to “prom”, the title of the episode was “The Prom”. That cracks me up.

  18. Florence said

    Ridger, you made my day! Seriously. You made me laugh at myself. I posted that at 2 a.m., after giving up on trying to sleep. Clever, that “Do you wail the loss of ‘ye’, for instance?” Touche’! Also, I find “as we have known it” even more amusing. This is one of those times where one needs to reread one’s message before hitting “SEND.” Clever. I thank you for that. I still maintain the article should precede “prom.

    To drop that would be ye olde day.

  19. Florence said

    Ridger, you made my day! Seriously. You made me laugh at myself. I posted that at 2 a.m., after giving up on trying to sleep. Clever. This is one of those times where one needs to reread one’s message before hitting “SEND.” Clever. I thank you for that. I still maintain the article should precede “prom.

    To drop that would be ye olde day.

    • Florence said

      Don’t know why this popped up twice. Glad it did, as I DID want to tell Ridger “My way or the highway.”, I’m not. Not an “in your face person.” Just enjoy posting and doing my wee bit to share what I feel is happening to our beautiful language. Am a baby boomer, certain grammatical rules are ingrained in me. Thank God.

      I’ve also been told to “get with it” re. “you guys.” No can do. “YOU” is plural understood. I do not buy an expensive dress, go out to dinner at an upscale restaurant, then be asked, “And what will you guys have?” No, it doesn’t irk me, just doesn’t go unnoticed…for the remainder of the night.:) While I say nothing, my spouse and all those who know me, know what I’m thinking, but let it go. The server for our table never knows, and only the service is reflected in the tip. I DO have a heart. I DO have friends, but as to “driving yourself crazy”, now that may very well happen.

  20. Glen said

    Last week, This American Life re-aired an episode from 2001 entitled “Prom.” In it, you can hear both ‘prom’ and ‘the prom’ used multiple times. I suppose you could use it the podcast as a mini-corpus, since the speakers come from multiple generations.

    • Florence said

      Thank you, Glen. An adjective OR an article is correct.

    • Neal said

      Good idea. I’m on it! So far it looks like Ira Glass has prom and the prom in free variation, while his probably Baby Boomer interviewee says mostly the prom. I’ll do the other acts in coming days.

  21. Bill said

    I am reading “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers. Along about page one hundred the character Mick Kelly hosts a party and talks about people asking someone “to prom”. She is clearly using the word as a verb. I first I thought it meant to ask someone to dance, but context suggests that it means to ask someone to take a walk around the block, to promenade. Any thoughts? The action takes place in the 1930s. Does anyone know of this use as a verb?

  22. The Ridger said

    Oh, gosh, yes – as a verb meaning “to walk around, to promenade” it’s fairly old. You can find it in lots of turn-of-the-century things (at least, it sounds very old-fashioned and common to me right now…). Also, for instance, in Seaside, Oregon, the boardwalk is called “the Prom”, meaning “the Promenade”. But I think the verb died out, in long and short forms – or more accurately, the long form (to promenade) became fairly pejorative, meaning more “to strut around showing off”.

    By the way, if you want proof it’s a verb, just Google “let’s prom” 😉

  23. Florence said

    Interesting, Bill…I remember other “Let’s promenade…” sentences in same-era novels. I’d forgotten that, as in “let’s go for a stroll, a slow walk.” Good observation! Then, there’s the “promenade” (v.t.) as a square dancing call, “Promenade your partner, and swing her, do-si-do!” Also, swimsuit “promenade” for Miss America once upon a time.

    And, The Ridger: While I depend on Google all the time, because “prom” is a pop word, don’t you know it’ll be covered? That Oregon promendade was shortened by the locals.

  24. Florence said

    Thought I’d moved past this…THE prom is still, I say, correct. However this weekend, I received a catalog with “promenade” (yes, I remember the word “prom” was the original topic) as an adjective…showing gawzy “promenade” pants. That, folks, is all I have to say on the subject.

  25. thirtypack said

    Philly, 36, the prom. This has been bugging me for quite some time. It just doesn’t sound right to me to say “prom” without the “the.”

  26. Roger said

    Los Angeles, late ’70s: “the prom”, exclusively. The noun-or-verb thing is a complete red-herring: try out “I got drunk at [the] prom” or “My band played three different proms last year”. There is absolutely no syntactic possibility that “prom” is a verb.

  27. pbell said

    New Development….In the movie “Pretty in Pink” , 1986, the main story line evolves around “Andie’s” getting a date for (the) Prom. Through the first half of the movie it is clearly referred to as “The Prom”. During one scene in the middle Andie referrers to it as “Prom”. The word “Prom” is then used through the rest of the movie. Based on the comments here, there is clearly a time line in the mid-late 80″s when “The Prom” became “Prom”. So…..

  28. Sandra said

    By saying “going to prom or hospital, etc.” sounds wrong and like English is not the individual’s first language. “Going to the prom or I am going to the hospital” sounds correct.

  29. John Redman said

    I use “the prom” just “prom” sounds to me like you are stupid, just like the saying,”can I come with” instead of,” can I come with you”it just sounds very stupid to me like you haven’t learned anything in school, I’m 61 years old from Boston Massachusetts thank you

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