Glenn Frey and the band with the anomalous name

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Singer-songwriter-guitarist Glenn Frey died two weeks ago, and I found myself reflecting on the poetry of the songs he wrote with Don Henley for a Lingua Franca post (see it here). Working on that caused me to bump up against the odd fact that the band Frey and Henley co-founded had a name that nobody ever gets right.

Steve Martin reported in his autobiography Born Standing Up that Frey insisted the name was "Eagles", not "The Eagles." Thus the band had settled on a name that was supposed to be what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls a strong proper name like Azerbaijan, which takes no the, not a weak one like (the) Azores, which must have a the. (Language Log, by the way, is a strong proper name.)

Everyone feels they need to supply a definite article for Eagles. And there's a reason for that. Once you look at the relevant grammatical constraints of English you see that Frey was really swimming upstream.

As CGEL explicitly says (page 517), "Plural proper names are always weak."

I think CGEL has that right. If there are any plural nouns that function as strong proper names, they must be very rare. I can't think of any.

[I left comments open below for an hour or two to see if anyone could identify one, and I got two good classes of counterexamples out of it, so see below. Comments are closed now.—GKP]

Plural nouns function syntactically as indefinite noun phrases; and (as again CGEL explicitly says on page 517) "a proper name is inherently definite."

So Frey was trying to make Eagles stand alone as a complete outlier in the language. No wonder he failed to get the world to go along with him: ignoring his insistence, everyone who talks about the band names them incorrectly. Even their Wikipedia article, though entitled Eagles, repeatedly uses a definite article before the name to remain in compliance with syntactic constraints.

By the way, you might think that when someone gives an address ending "Nassau, Bahamas", they are using Bahamas as a plural strong proper name. I don't think so. I think it's just an abbreviation. There are over 6,000 mentions of the Bahamas in the Wall Street Journal corpus, but when you look for the ones that don't have the definite article (I used fgrep Bahamas * | fgrep -iv 'the Bahamas', which finds all lines with Bahamas and then filters to remove all lines that have the Bahamas) you find only headlines ("Firm Intends to Buy Hotel In Bahamas for $82.5 Million"), names of companies ("Basic Resources International (Bahamas) Ltd."), addresses or datelines ("Nassau, Bahamas"), and a few uses of Bahamas as a modifier ("his Bahamas headquarters"; "a Bahamas company owned by Garland Tomlin"). You never find straight uses of Bahamas as a proper name. So don't look too superficially at words ending in s and imagine that they're counterexamples.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a straight use of Eagles as a proper name either, despite the late Glenn Frey's intent.

UPDATE: What we have here is a classic case of me not looking in the absolutely most obvious place: I didn't go through a list of other band names! The comments already entered below provide overwhelming evidence that CGEL should be very slightly modified. Plural proper names are always weak except that (1) numerous pop groups and rock bands have named themselves with plural nouns, and (2) some UK soccer teams have plural names. So Eagles are not as alone as I thought.

In a way, the general constraint still stands confirmed with band names, though: the other band names (Eurhythmics, Dead Kennedys, Sparks, Men At Work, Talking Heads, etc.) also get spurious definite articles prefixed to them, as people follow the normal pattern of English proper names. All of the bands who followed this exceptional course in naming themselves are swimming upstream syntactically.

The other class of exceptions is perhaps clearer: Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, and Rangers seem to function perfectly (in British English) as proper names despite their plural noun form.

One commenter points out that some books of the Bible have plural noun names; but I think they work as singular NPs syntactically: we say "Numbers is the fourth book of the Old Testament", "I think Psalms is more interesting than Lamentations", and so on. So those are plural nouns locked up inside singular NPs that function as strong proper names, which is not quite the same as true plural-noun strong proper names. The same is true of other book titles, like Sons and Lovers (see Bloix below): you need to test them by seeing which agreement form you would use on a verb if the book title was the subject. Some cases are clearer than others, but I think we would say Talking Heads were recording a new album and Bolton Wanderers are not doing well this season, with plural agreement, right?

My thanks to all the commenters, and special thanks to Ben Zimmer for reminding me of a couple of pieces including an old Language Log post that have dealt with band names (see his comment below).

One other thing: Cory Lubliner points out to me that there are place names consisting of a modifier plus a plural noun: Council Bluffs, Englewood Cliffs, and Beverly Hills, for example. But they also seem to be singular: Englewood Cliffs is in New Jersey, and so on.—GKP]


  1. Y said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 12:23 pm

    (The) Eagles may have lost the name battle, but Sparks, Scorpions, and many others have nevertheless remained the-less.

  2. popegrutch said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 12:26 pm

    The band Dead Kennedys has the same problem, as well as the fact that there is a natural urge to turn the "y" into "ie" when pluralizing.

  3. Maurice Buxton said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 12:31 pm

    This probably doesn't count if "Eagles" doesn't count, but reasonably successful indie group Foals are another band with a name that looks like it should have a "The" in front, but doesn't.

    In this case, the Wikipedia article manages to avoid adding definite articles — the one exception being "The Foals' website", in which presumably the "The" relates to "website" not the band itself.

  4. Greg said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 12:42 pm

    Glass Animals
    Mystery Skulls
    Rascal Flatts

  5. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 12:46 pm

    Eurythmics are another group whose plural name became accepted without the article.

    (The) Smashing Pumpkins straddle the line; they have presented themselves both ways. Totally anecdotally, I can report having heard more references to the band's name without the article than with.

  6. David Kathman said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 12:47 pm

    The band "Eurythmics" has had a similar problem. Lots of people want to treat the name as a plural noun and thus add a definite article, but Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart have always insisted that it has no definite article, because the name comes from a rhythmic exercise system that Lennox encountered as a child, and is grammatically comparable to "aerobics".

  7. Harry said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

    British soccer clubs: Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Rangers.

  8. lhc said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 12:52 pm

    Talking Heads, who even had an album called The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 12:52 pm

    My own sense is that Sparks did reasonably well at being anarthrous in practice, but [the] Scorpions didn't. Talking Heads is another example of a well-known band that had some success in getting people to follow their idiosyncratic subjective preference re anarthrousness. I wonder if it's easier (although this wouldn't account for Sparks*) for multi-word NP's (especially if I'm correct in my sense that people who did use anarthrous "Talking Heads" without undue self-consciousness tended to add an article for the clipped form "the Heads")? Pink Mountaintops comes to my mind as a more recent example, although since my knowledge of more recent bands is very spotty I have trouble putting particular examples in a statistically meaningful context. Compounds of two plural nouns are fairly unusual as band names, but as best as I can recall, back in the day was (or should that be "were"? use v mention, I guess) often anarthrous in casual reference.

    *Obviously for purposes of creating garden-path sentences and the like "Sparks" could also be the 3d-person-singular of "to spark," but I don't personally recall ever hearing that alternative proposed as the correct analysis of the band's name.

  10. Ethan said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

    Men At Work
    (Aussie band 1978-2002).

  11. Keith said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

    It looks like groups (musical combos or sproting teams) with a name following the pattern adjective + noun can forgo the definite article.

    Glass Animals, Bolton Wanderers, Talking Heads.

    Possibly this is because the addition of an adjective restricts the noun; instead of being general and indefinite it becomes more specific and definite, closer to being a unique proper noun.

  12. Jim said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:06 pm

    Funny how you would quite frequently hear people say "the Led Zeppelin" instead of Led Zeppelin, particularly among the English.

  13. Brett said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

    I'm not a fan of any of the bands that people have mentioned so far, and in almost every case, I feel like should be a "the" in front of the name. "Talking Heads" sound all right without, but I'm pretty sure I would say it with "the."

    The one clear exception is Men At Work, just mentioned by Ethan. "The Men At Work" sounds clearly wrong. Of course, "Men At Work" has several features that may contribute to the apparent inappropriateness of "the": it is multiple words; the actual plural noun comes first; it was already a stock phrase before the band came along; and the plural is irregular.

  14. reader_not_academe said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:17 pm

    talk about garden paths… i was thrilled to learn that glenn frey and don henley wrote songs for lingua franca. such a *cool* idea! but then i didn't find the songs, and then i re-parsed the first sentence.

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:19 pm

    Re Men at Work, maybe (even more so than with the more-than-one-word examples I just gave) that sort of noun-initial NP is sufficiently unusual for proper names (outside a rock-band-name context) that there simply isn't a strong native-speaker intuition that it needs to be arthrous if used as a proper name? I don't think Birdsongs of the Mesozoic was generally arthrous in common use, and unlike Talking Heads it didn't require any particular self-conscious hipster knowledge of the band's preferences to eschew the article. But see also the '80's subgenre of hardcore punk bands that became better-known by their initials, whose full names were typically anarthrous regardless of where the noun(s) fell in the multi-word NP, e.g. MDC (Millions of Dead Cops), DRI (Dirty Rotten Imbeciles), and TSOL (True Sounds of Liberty).

    By contrast, I have trouble thinking of a single-word plural band name from the '80's punk/underground scene that was commonly anarthrous in practice, although that doesn't mean there wasn't one. There are plenty of examples of such bands in punk going back into the '70's that adopted the Eagles-like convention of always being anarthrous in terms of how their name was printed on album covers and t-shirts and the like (examples: the Ramones and the Buzzcocks), but this seemed like more of a graphic-design stylistic choice than a signal that they would prefer to have their name treated anarthrously in third-party mentions. If it was such a signal, they didn't do as good a job as [the] Talking Heads did of making their fans aware of it.

  16. Aaron said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:23 pm

    Re: Smashing Pumpkins, I always interpreted their name as Gerund + Object, not Adjective + Head, so it would never have occurred to me to call them The Smashing Pumpkins. But if the band themselves have used the name with an article, perhaps they had Adjective + Head in mind all along.

  17. Ellen K. said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:27 pm

    I would argue that Eurythmics isn't perceived as plural, but rather as a non-count noun like mathmatics, and physics.

    Barenaked Ladies works for me without "the". In that case, adding "the" would seem to wrongly imply the members are females and don't wear clothes, neither of which are true. It also fits with the suggestions of J.W. Brewer and Keith regarding multi-word band names being okay being plural with no "the".

  18. Aaron said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:31 pm

    Oh, and Manic Street Preachers, for another data point suggesting that it's all right not to have the article if the name is multi-word.

  19. Bloix said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

    Talking Heads means heads who talk (on TV). So it should take take the.
    Smashing Pumpkins is not a bunch of pumpkins who smash, but an activity ("Smashing pumpkins on Halloween is a jerky thing to do") – no "the" there, as gerunds don't take articles.
    See also, Counting Crows (not a flock of intelligent birds, but the counting of them for divination purposes).

  20. Ben Zimmer said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

    For further discussion, see:

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:39 pm

    Here's a list of recording artists popular with the rock-critic establishment when I was a senior in high school that uses a mix of arthrous and anarthrous for bands with unambiguously syntactically plural names: I don't know whether this is haphazard editing (leading "the"s are ubiquitously disregarded for purposes of alphabetization, so there are contexts in which an originally-alphabetized list might omit them and then been only partially cleaned-up?) or instead faithfully reflects underlying variation in Official-Version-of-the-Name as promulgated by various bands' labels/managers/publicists/etc. But all of the unambiguously plural ones given as anarthrous (the Fleshtones, the Go-Go's, and the Meat Puppets) were commonly arthrous in practice. Same is true for the preceding year's edition of the same (where the ones given anarthrously that were commonly arthrous in practice were the Au Pairs, the Pretenders, and the Psychedelic Furs). Someone else could if they wanted to poke around a bit in these poll results, which collectively cover over three decades of annual installments and have a mix of commercially-successful and cult-favorite-only members, as a semi-natural corpus, in the sense of at least being a corpus assembled for a purpose having nothing to do with a desire to either highlight or obscure features of linguistic interest in the names of the artists. Or do the same with some other corpus with a good run for a number of years (Grammy nominations or whatever) to avoid the urge to cherry-pick striking or unusual examples.

  22. vvillenave said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:47 pm

    Greetings from France,

    as you know, in French, presenting a (common or proper) noun not preceeded with «Les» ("the") is quite unusual and often mistaken for an anglicism: where English can use a common noun without any article, French requires an indefinite article in that case («Des» instead of «Les»).

    The only exception I can think of, is in a purely referential (didactic or deictic) situation: for example, a printed sign in a public place will read «Toilettes» and never «Les Toilettes». There are, in turn, a few famous examples of this specific use to be found in French literature, but never without some ambiguity:

    – Charles Perrault’s «Contes De Ma Mère l’Oye» quickly became «Les Contes De Ma Mère l’Oye» after his death (interestingly, «Fables» by his friend La Fontaine was allowed to remain without an article).

    – Victor Hugo’s «Châtiments» was rechristened «Les Châtiments» no later than in the second edition; to this day, most readers are convinced it’s the original title (I for one like the article-less version a lot more: it sounds much more powerful, and relates more directly to the enclosed poems, almost as if Hugo had created a new literary form — which, in a way, he did). Hugo would not, however, go on with this audacious trend, and went back to using an article later on with «Les Contemplations».

    – Arthur Rimbaud’s «Illuminations» is a controversial case. There are some clues that *could* indicate that Rimbaud had intended the title to be left without an article — in which case, as suggested by Paul Verlaine, it should be read as an English title (Illuminations as in "colored plates", as opposed to its French meaning of "Enlightenments" — and, yes, the plural does sound weird in French as well). I personally think it’s a very credible assertion (English culture played quite a role in both their writings), but some scholars disagree.

    At any rate, it shows how odd that grammatical construct sounds in French, and how people familiar with classical literature are bound to resist when presented with such titles. If I could hazard a wild guess, it seems that:
    – children-oriented literature favors titles with an article (which is why you’ll find one in «Les Aventures de Tintin», or in «L’Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant», a book for children, but not in «Histoire du Soldat», a theater play not particularly for children
    – more utilitarian or abstract works (typically, schoolbooks and manuals) tend not to require an article: for example, Raymond Queneau’s «Exercices de style» allude to this genre. Perhaps Blaise Pascal’s «Pensées sur la religion» (a title given posthumously) is to be read as part of this "non-fictional" angle; other examples could include most religious collections («Cantiques», «Épitres», «Actes des Apôtres») or Marcus Aurelius’ «Soliloques»/«Pensées pour soi-même».
    – However, even non-literary books may opt to add an article, either because they aim to acquire some nobility (most French "historical" cookbooks have an article in their title) or, on the opposite, because they want to appear less formal and more familiar: to wit, every book in the collection "[x] For Dummies" has been translated in French as «Le/La/Les [x] pour les nuls».

    Okay, I think I ventured far enough in pure off-topic speculation, so I’ll leave it at that and stop playing linguist for now :-)


  23. Devon said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:49 pm

    They're out there — here's a friend's band, Meridians:

  24. David L said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:51 pm

    What about books of the Bible? Numbers, Judges, Psalms, Proverbs, Lamentations, Acts… I don't think Galatians etc count because they're adjective, not nouns.

    I can't help thinking that there must be secular books whose titles are just a single plural noun, but I can't think of one right now.

  25. Jim said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

    Another discussion that pops up frequently on Wikipedia is whether a band is singluar or plural: "The Eagles are an American rock band", but "Counting Crows is an American rock band".

  26. Bloix said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 1:56 pm

    "Bahamas," isn't, I don't think, a genuine plural. There is no such thing as "a Bahama," and there aren't multiple islands named this or that Bahama – unlike, e.g., the Biminis (North and South), or the Inaguas (Great and Little), or, to go further afield, the Oranges or the Hamptons.

    [Good point; Bahamas doesn't get anywhere as a potential counterexample. —GKP]

  27. Guy said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 2:02 pm

    @Maurice Buxton

    That doesn't seem very likely. Usually a genitive noun phrase is acting as determiner, blocking the definite article (cf. *"the my mother's website"). Of course, genitives can occasionally act as modifiers ("I'm going to the men's store"), but it's doubtful that "The Foals' website" was intended like that or could be used that way, compare *"The Lady Gaga's website". We could have "The Lady Gaga website" and assume that the apostrophe in "The Foals' website" was a mistake, but I think it's more likely that the editors of the article are naturally going to include some fans who are consciously insistent about the usage, and they failed to "correct" the example you found because they misparsed its structure.

  28. Bloix said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

    Danielle Steele wrote a novel called Sisters. Which reminds of Fathers and Sons, Sons and Lovers, Lovers and Other Strangers, and Strangers on a Train.

  29. cameron said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 2:13 pm

    Grails is another one that never seems to take require the The.

    The opposite extreme is the convention of naming the band in Thee. As in Thee Headcoats, Thee Hypnotics, Thee Michelle Gun Elephant, etc. This makes sure people don't schwa the definite article, and it used to get your records filed under T in the record store. (I guess it still does in the few remaining record stores.)

    This is now garage rock tradition, but I think it was originally an East LA thing in the mid-60s. Thee Midnighters were the biggest band to come out of that scene. Here's a page with pictures of some 60s flyers from the East LA scene:

    Note that on various flyers you can see Thee Royal Checkmates referred to as Thee Royal Checkmates, The Royal Checkmates, and simply as Royal Checkmates.

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