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From what I have seen so far the word death penalty is used with the definite article as often as without. But apparently this is not the case with the word capital punishment according to Ngram. Why is this?

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    In your first graph, isn't "death penalty" also counting every use of "the death penalty"? In other words, every time "the death penalty" is used, it's going to count towards "death penalty" too. So you can't use that graph to compare them.
    – stangdon
    Oct 15, 2016 at 13:24
  • But Wikipedia agrees with this as well. "Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment
    – user43231
    Oct 15, 2016 at 13:26
  • I don't understand what you mean by "Wikipedia agrees with this" - can you provide a link? Anyway, I'm just saying that you can't use that graph that way, because it doesn't show what you think it shows. The deeper reason is that penalty is usually a count noun, and punishment is usually used as a non-count noun, particularly in the sense of capital punishment, because we're talking about a general phenomenon and not a specific example.
    – stangdon
    Oct 15, 2016 at 13:31
  • Can the words capital punishment and death penalty be used the same without articles?
    – user43231
    Oct 15, 2016 at 14:21
  • **the same way ....
    – user43231
    Oct 15, 2016 at 14:28

1 Answer 1

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"Capital punishment" refers to a generic, uncountable process or concept, similar to many other nouns like "brushing your teeth" or "collective bargaining" or "parliamentary government" or "driving to the state fair". Since there's only one of that kind of thing you can't use the definite article to signify which of that thing you mean.

So why do we then say "the death penalty" when talking about what is more or less the same generic concept? This is likely just idiomatic and "is the way it is because it is" ... but if you are looking for some logical reason: The refers to "penalty", where "the death penalty" is one of a number of possible penalties a court could impose: the incarceration penalty, the pay a fine penalty, the house arrest penalty, the community service penalty, the stern rebuke penalty, etc.

Actually you'll notice that these (incarceration, paying a fine, house arrest, community service, stern rebuke) also don't (normally) take a definite article since they are similarly indivisible concepts.

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  • Thank you. But can the words capital punishment and death penalty be used the same way without articles?
    – user43231
    Oct 15, 2016 at 14:39
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    No, Andrew explained why you can't use the death penalty without an article. Just saying "Death penalty is" is incorrect, because it's a specific penalty.
    – stangdon
    Oct 15, 2016 at 16:13

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