Because I Feel Like Starting Yet Another Pointless Word Usage Holy War

The sort of person who would use the phrase hoi polloi is also the sort of person who ought to know not to put “the” in front of it.

That is all.

89 Comments on “Because I Feel Like Starting Yet Another Pointless Word Usage Holy War”

  1. Rick:

    Hoi polloi, almost by definition, are not the sort of people to use “hoi polloi” in conversation, without or without the redundant definite article.


    Don’t you start.

  2. Sorry John, I just had to use all of your language hot buttons in one sentence. I’ll try not to let it happen again… (riiight).

  3. I write ?? ????? in Greek characters because I do not pretend that I am not an ass.

  4. Ulrika:

    It’s fine if hoi polloi uses it; I tend to skip the “the,” personally, unless it makes the phrasing totally awkward.

  5. OED disagrees:
    The majority; the masses. Also formerly in Univ. slang,
    candidates for a pass degree.
    In English use normally preceded by the definite article
    even though hoi means ‘the’.

  6. Call me old-fashioned, but I find that people who use the word “irregardless” in a sentence should be stabbed with a lemon-coated bowling ball.

  7. Tor:

    The CMS disagrees with me on the serial comma, too. Apparently because it likes being wrong.

    Steve Downey:

    The OED editors are just trying to trip up the lower classes.

  8. *giggle* I have to admit that I did three years of ancient Greek in uni, and…I still say “the” even though I know better.

    The phrase does tend to trigger mumbling on my part about hoi kaloi kai agathoi*, though. Does that restore my pedantry cred? :)

    *”The beautiful and good”, as opposed to “the many”. One guess as to which class of people referred to themselves this way. *amused*

  9. (…I notice that for other phrases, like hoi kaloi, I *do* automatically leave out the English “the”. Which makes me think saying “the hoi polloi” is entirely a result of having heard other people say it that way too much. Ergo, it’s not my fault! That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)

  10. I just got yapped at about this at slashdot last week. And here’s my take on it — dropping the ‘the’ just sounds awful, so I’ll keep using it.

    There are many, many other examples where we do the same thing with phrases from other languages- what’s the deal with greek?

    And if we are worried about the original – what’s up with the H? Yeah – the word sounds that way because of the breathing mark- but there is no H there.

  11. My history with hoi polloi goes something like this: first I learn the phrase way too young, maybe when I was nine, probably from G&S. My mother, who is also wrong about sentence-modifying hopefully, explains about the the at that time. However, I am unable to use the phrase in context until my teenage years. Teenage years: Ah, when I knew everything, such as the rule about that and which. I go to see Edwin Newman speak. I sneer at the circumjacent yahoos in my public school.

    Later, I discover that William Safire is wrong about very nearly everything, and that there is no rule about that and which, and that nouns are not just people, places and things, and that the traditional usage is to include the the before hoi polloi. Slowly, I walk the path to stickler recovery. I stop sneering at the masses, and I stop using the phrase hoi polloi altogether.

    This demonstrates the accuracy of Mr. Scalzi’s claim: First I was the sort of person who used the phrase and “knew” not to use the the and then I was the sort of person who didn’t, and didn’t.

    I’m still trying to break myself of scare quotes.


  12. WWS&WD — What would Strunk & White Do? That’s my touchstone for proper written English. Spoken English is another bird altogether. And using “the” in front of hoi polloi, allows hoi polloi to follow what you are saying with minimum information loss in transmission.

    Count me as neutral, leaning against, on this one.

  13. John, which meaing of hoi polloi are you invoking, the prescriptive, or the descriptive (which has come to mean the opposite)?

    Kudos to Ronald Falcon in #7 for the House reference.

  14. I don’t know if this really counts as on topic or not, but I’m going to chance it. A pet peeve of mine is:

    In Hebrew, adding ‘Ha’ at the front of a word means ‘the’.

    HaTikvah, the Israeli National Anthem means ‘The hope’.

    Please do not ever say ‘The HaTikvah’. I hates it, yes I does.

    (/foreign language rant that few of you have any occasion to give a shit about)

  15. Have you read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris? Her whole family is the type of people who know not to add “the” — and they edit menus as well. Hysterical.

  16. A wise man once said: never use a foreign phrase when a suitable English bon mot will suffice. On second thought, it might have been Niles Crane.

  17. “Hoi polloi,” meaning exactly the opposite of what most people think it does, is a linguistic Trojan Horse — dangerous, better avoided, and full of Greeks.

  18. On a related note, whenever I see “with au jus” on a menu I want to strangle the person responsible.

  19. Pronoia – Ex Libris is a wonderful, funny, brilliant book, and anyone who has strong feelings on whether “hoi polloi” takes a definite article in English or not should rush right out and buy a copy, because it is precisely the sort of book that usage geeks and bibliophiles will love.

    Me, I figure anyone who ever uses the word “automobile” with a straight face has already given up the right to get too shirty about keeping Greek roots pure…

  20. I think what bugs me about this one is that I think it is possible to know the meaning of the phrase, without knowing the literal translation. Until today, I knew only that Hoi Polloi meant generally ‘the masses’ as in ‘the great unwashed’ or the lumpenproletariat – not the literal translation (I took Latin in high school, instead of greek). :)

    Some definite articles in foreign languages are generally known (spanish was an example above) – others are not, and Hoi is definately not one that I think can be safely assumed to be known. So this seems more like an obscure ‘gotcha’ than proper English, to me anyway (and the CMD and OED).

  21. Here’s one much worse:
    A housing development in California, called
    “The Los Altos Heights”

    It’s apocryphal, but all too plausible. There is a town called “Los Altos Hills” which is almost the same wrong thing, but lacking an article.

  22. Polychrome @38

    When I lived in northern Maine, there was an ad for a restaurant that inevitably pronounced it “roast duckling aww jew.”

    Which always brought images to mind of me bringing out a roast duckling and saying, “So, nu, you’ll eat, you’ll like?”


  23. joelfinkle@#42: Then there’s The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Or, to translate, The The Angels Angels of Anaheim.

  24. Why use a pedantic, obscure and pretentious borrow from some ancient dead language when there’s a perfectly usable alternative in your own? Unless you’re a snob (or possibly a new-yorker)?

    Hoi polloi always sounded to me as a borderline polite way of saying “unwashed masses” when the aforementioned masses are present.

  25. A Chicagoan friend in college was waxing rhapsodic about a sandwich she’d had “with O juice” and it took me the longest damn time to figure out she wasn’t talking about orange juice on a sandwich, which made no damn sense.

  26. Mr Rawdon has just outed himself as a Southern Californian. Up here in proper California, we do not use “The” for either freeways or roads (except “The Alameda”, in a couple of places). El Camino is just that, and the freeway is just “101.”

    However, that is not to say that we don’t have our own problems.

    I grew up mostly in Los Altos, a city in the SF Bay area. Next door is Los Altos Hills, which is above Los Altos, up in the hills.

    Adding (quite intentional) insult to injury, when Los Altos Hills finally got around to incorporating, it tried to be “The Town of Los Altos Hills”, as they thought that sounded more neighborly than “The City of Los Altos Hills”. However, California’s standard local government incorporation law said “Thou shalt be ‘The City of …’ “.

    The solution for which was, of course, “The City of the Town of Los Altos Hills”. Which is cunningly obfuscated on the city history and website ( ) but remains fact to this day.

  27. Scalzi @46:
    Well, if you want to be pedantic about it…

    Well, duh. What’s the fun of a Pointless Word Usage Holy War if you aren’t going to be pedantic?

  28. You know what really gets up my pipe? Besides everyone who just snickered at the phrase “gets up my pipe”? “The Sahara Desert.” Why not just announce your illiteracy to the world? Why not refer to “The Rio River” and “The Mont Mountain”? WHY CAN’T YOU MAKE THE CONNECTION AND SPARE OTHER PEOPLE?!?

  29. I don’t see what the big deal is. All y’all should just report these to the Department of Redundancy Department, and relax…

  30. Speaking of extra definitive articles, what do we make of The Whatever (even if only occasionally used)? ;-)

  31. To build on Mr. Rawdon’s point, is it any less correct than referring to, for example “The La Brea Tar Pits?” Literally, that would translate to “The The Tar Tar Pits.” (“La Brea” is a proper noun, so I get that the analogy isn’t perfect.) In the process of a foreign expression is adopted by, and incorporated into, the English language, the meaning almost necessarily shifts. Certainly it shouldn’t be offensive or surprising that there would be at least as slight a shift such that a definite article, formerly redundant, would now be employed.

  32. The Huang Ho River. Pronounced rhyming with “clang toe” for full effect.

    The Yellow Yellow River River.


  33. Re: #60

    ” I don’t see what the big deal is. All y’all should just report these to the Department of Redundancy Department, and relax…”

    You surely mean “The Department of Tautological Redundancy Department”

  34. The best (and worst) thing about English is that “majority usage rules”. It’s a wonderfully democratic language, which is why God wrote the Bible in it, and George W. Bush still attempts to speak it. In this case, as all the dictionaries and style guides agree, John ‘Mugabe’ Scalzi is out voted and therefore loses.

    But thanks a bunch for making me look up the literal meaning of the Greek for the first time :-)

  35. Those using “the hoi polloi” are the same who are always using clangers like PIN number and VIN number.

  36. I plead complete ignorance, in that I never knew “hoi” meant “the.”

    Since I knew the phrase referred to “commoners,” or “ordinary people,” and I knew “polloi” meant “people,” I assumed “hoi” meant, well, common or ordinary.

    So: “hoi polloi” means “common people.”

    Therefore a the before hoi would not be redundant.;

  37. In New Mexico, we laugh at people who say Rio Grande River. For about ten years, the street in my address was El Camino Real. It was a mostly fruitless battle to keep to keep people from changing that to El Camino Real Rd. or El Camino Real St. in things like magazine subscriptions or SF con registrations.



    The historical El Camino Real is a few miles to the east of me, across guess which river.

  38. In recent years I’ve been inclining to the idea that words of other origin used in English sentences should follow English rules too, unless there’s some really pressing reason to do otherwise. We pretty much all accept that pronunciation will drift, particularly with place names, and I don’t disapprove of that; it seems merely consistently to say that I don’t disapprove of grammatical adjustments, either.

  39. I love American Heritage. I mean, the American Heritage. Er, Dictionary, that is. I had no idea about the “al” in “alcohol” (and yes, I do mean that I had no idea about the “the” in “the-cohol”). ;-) I feel like signing this “Kendall of the many hoi palloi” just to annoy the pedants….

    Kendall, who is also at times pedantic, don’t worry

    Usage Note: Hoi polloi is a borrowing of the Greek phrase hoi polloi, consisting of hoi, meaning “the” and used before a plural, and polloi, the plural of polus, “many.” In Greek hoi polloi had a special sense, “the greater number, the people, the commonalty, the masses.” This phrase has generally expressed this meaning in English since its first recorded instance, in an 1837 work by James Fenimore Cooper. Hoi polloi is sometimes incorrectly used to mean “the elite,” possibly because it is reminiscent of high and mighty or because it sounds like hoity-toity. · Since the Greek phrase includes an article, some critics have argued that the phrase the hoi polloi is redundant. But phrases borrowed from other languages are often reanalyzed in English as single words. For example, a number of Arabic noun phrases were borrowed into English as simple nouns. The Arabic element al- means “the,” and appears in English nouns such as alcohol and alchemy. Thus, since no one would consider a phrase such as “the alcohol” to be redundant, criticizing the hoi polloi on similar grounds seems pedantic.

  40. Indefinite articles I know, and definite articles I know. But what is an extra-definite article? A brass bustier is extra definite, but not the sort of article you meant.

  41. How is it that the High Horse of Usage, so assiduous in its kicking of superfluous articles and serial commas, steps so nimbly over the horrible “different . . . .than” mis-construction that so plagues these pages?

    Today’s example:

    “But the camera sees something different than the human eye.” – meaningless, as written.

    okay, so replace the ‘than’ with ‘from’ (because things differ one from another, right?).

    “But the camera sees something different from the human eye.” Aha! Now that means something, but not what was intended. I guess we have to be a bit less lazy . . .

    “But the camers sees something different from that which is seen by the human eye.” That’s what you meant.

    I provide this service free of charge, by the way.

  42. It’s an ugly phrase, so I avoid it.

    Last word on usage: WSC, on being told that it was wrong to end a sentence with a preposition – “This is exactly the sort of nonsense up with which I shall not put”.

  43. Actually, I believe the phrase was, “This is the sort of errant pedantry up with which I shall not put.”

    And even if WSC didn’t say that, it sounds more like something he’d have said.

  44. RoaldFalcon@7

    Not to be pedantic, but ain’t you missing a lamda there?

    I thought the spellingwas ?? ?????

  45. So if one should have occasion to blog about a trip to visit Torpenhow Hill, what is the proper thing to call it?

    Or, if one visits Dragaera, Bengloarafurd Ford?

    Of course, wikipedia* has a page for these data:

    * Should that be capitalized?

    Digressing story: I once had to gently tell my boss that he should stop referring to ACSII files as “asskey two files.”

    And #53 Michael Rawdon & #60 Skip, please remember to submit duplicate copies of all paperwork again.

  46. @18 Squid:
    One is greatly indebted to your erudite self for providing the link. One is also utterly outgrabed to note that Sir Grandiose addresses proper use of the phrase hoi polloi and his own lamentations concerning the use of Whatever in the same dispatch:

    While one is making known his concerns, might one make a plea to eliminate two particular phrases from current popular usage? The first, naturally, is that supreme expression of insolent disregard: Whatever.

    One feels that such circularity would be much funnier if one were Douglas Hofstadter.

  47. Kendall @ 73
    Cooper spelt it hoi, but Byron used it first.
    c1821-2 Byron in Lett. (1830) I. 633 [We] put on masques, and went on the stage with the o polloi.]


  48. “But the camera sees something different from what the human eye sees.”

    There. Just as accurate, less clumsy.

    And I charge half the price that Redcoat charges!

  49. Well, but then there’s ‘hoi oligoi’.

    Actually, I was checking with Thucydides (quoting Perikles) and he has (“es oligous” ‘(towards)) the minority’ as being the ones who’d use ‘polloi’. Almost like Russell’s heterological paradox.

    Oddly, some Oxford philosophers (like Grice) felt their lifetime was to be dedicated to the defense of ‘ta legomena’ of ‘The Many’ — but then …

    How (the) few are too (the) few?

  50. Georgewilliamherbert (#55): There are several municipalities in Massachusetts that have a city form of government, but are styled as towns.

    This leads to legal phrasings such as “the city known as the Town of Watertown”.

    (Incidentally, “the city known as the Town of Watertown” is in Middlesex County, which has two county seats and no county government.)

  51. //tardy comment
    Strunk & White, if I recall correctly, would recomment that you spell “tomorrow” as “to-morrow” and “today” as “to-day.”

  52. However, they would not recommend that you spell “recommend” as “recomment”. It may lead to confusion.

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