11

If my throat is red and it feels painful to swallow, I say

I have a sore throat.

Recently, I've come across "strep throat". It's an infection and it doesn't seem to be used interchangeably with "sore throat". And I am wondering why.

I have a throat infection.

If it's a type of infection, why can't I say the following?

I have a strep throat.

I have a strep.

All the sentences I've found suggest leaving out the article.

I have strep throat.

I have strep.

Most likely, your doctor will prescribe an oral antibiotic if you have a strep infection.

If you have a strep infection, your health care provider will prescribe an antibiotic.

Could you demystify it for me?

  1. The difference between "sore throat" and "strep throat".
  2. Whether I should use an indefinite article before "strep throat".
  • 3
    Is "strep throat" an American English term? I've never heard it before. The only thing that sounds related to me is "Strepsils" - a brand name of flavoured throat sweets, intended for sore throats. – Aaron F Apr 27 at 9:34
  • @AaronF Dictionaries say so. "Strep-" is a common prefix for throat-related medications (e.g. "strepsils", "strepfen") – Andrew Tobilko Apr 27 at 13:03
  • 1
    I've only ever heard the abbreviation ‘strep’ or the term ‘strep throat’ in American contexts; here in England I think ‘sore throat’ or more specifically ‘throat infection’ are vastly more common. – gidds Apr 27 at 14:12
  • Strep throat specifically refers to a Streptococcus infection, a type of bacterium that commonly causes throat infections. It's sometimes used to mean just a sore throat. – Hearth Apr 27 at 21:36
15

There's little consistency in the articles we use (or don't use) with names of illnesses.

Ex:

I have a cold
I have the flu
I have diarrhea

Strep or strep throat is one of the many illnesses that do not get an article:

I have strep/strep throat

But this is only true when we're using strep as the name of a condition. It's also the name of a bacterium - actually, the name of the bacterium is streptococcus, but it's occasionally shortened to strep. When we're talking about the bacteria, as opposed to the illness caused by the bacteria, we use articles as per normal:

The streptococcus bacteria were hard to find.
A streptococcus bacterium can be oxidase-negative.

  • 3
    @AndrewTobilko Basically, "strep" is functioning as an adjective here. But mostly, I think the reason it doesn't sound weird is that we're used to it. – jaia Apr 26 at 17:33
  • 1
    @AndrewTobilko, I agree with jaia: it doesn't sound strange to native speakers because...that's the term native speakers use. If I had to guess at an etymology, I suppose the idea is that "strep" throat is the kind of throat you have when your throat is infected with streptococci. It looks similar to athlete's foot or swimmer's ear. – Juhasz Apr 26 at 17:36
  • 3
    "Strep" is not an adjective in the same sense as "sore." You can say "strep throat" as a name of a condition or you can use it's shorter version "strep," both of which are nouns. You don't say say a strep arm, for example, but you can say a sore throat or a sore arm, because sore is an adjective. – Jan Apr 26 at 17:41
  • 6
    @Jan I would go so far to say that "strep throat" is really a compound noun, not an adjective modifying a noun. It's the condition of a streptococcus infection of the throat. And that's the reason why it can be shortened to "strep", as many other compound nouns can be. – Monty Harder Apr 26 at 17:53
  • 5
    @Timbo and since Swiss cheese is often not made in Switzerland, I propose we change its name to "strep cheese." Yum. – Juhasz Apr 26 at 19:20
2

I think this has to do with the difference between mass and count nouns, but I am not sure.

So English makes a distinction between things and stuff. Things come in individual chunks. So, for example, you can count them. I can have three drinks, or five friends, or three left shoes. Stuff is some sort of substance or, we might say, it is continuous. It does not come in individual chunks, unless you measure those out. So for instance, I cannot breathe "three airs." I could maybe breathe three liters of air, measuring it out. Sometimes for the really common stuff, it becomes things because it is always measured in just one way. So for example water and coffee and sugar and cream are all stuffs, but in a restaurant, a waiter might say "table three needs two waters and three coffees, two black, one with two sugars and three creams." He is able to play with this aspect of grammar, because in that context he means two glasses of water, three cups of coffee, one of which needs two packets of sugar and three containers of cream.

Similarly if you were to say "She has two salts" it is not grammatical at first, and in my attempts to make it grammatical in my head I start to hope that we are talking about a chemist who has two different kinds of salt, or so, maybe she is mixing sodium chloride and potassium iodide for example.

Now, throats are things. They are things even when they are sore.

Throats can be sore for a lot of reasons. Maybe you were screaming all night last night at a concert and now you have a sore throat. Maybe your throat was recently operated on in a surgery to remove your tonsils and it is still sore.

Strep is a particular bacterium that causes a particular disease, known as strep throat. Diseases like strep throat and cancer are usually thought of as stuff, not as things. So much like the "She has two salts" example above where I am hoping she is a chemist, if you tell me "He has three cancers", that sounds very unfortunate, because I have to imagine that you are talking about different kinds of cancer, "yes, brain cancer, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer." That's a very sick man indeed! The words we use to measure these conditions are somewhat different; I have to speak of cases of cancer or so, because it is such an unusual substance.

8

The difference between "I have a sore throat" and "I have strep throat" lies in the predicate of the sentence.

When the word "Has/Had/Have" is used, we use an article for singular predicates, no article for plural predicates, and also no article for proper nouns or compound nouns (depending on use).

I have a movie. (Singular)

I have movies. (Plural)

I have a Godzilla movie. (Singular with Proper Noun used as an adjective)

I have Godzilla. (Proper Noun predicate, used in a conversation where the topic is known to be about movies)

When speaking about medical terms, this style is also used:

I have a sore foot.

I have Athlete's Foot.


"Strep throat" in particular is not normally capitalized from what I've seen, and so it is not as easily identified as a proper or compound noun.


One easy way to identify adjectives (and adverbs, prepositional phrases, clauses, etc.) is to eliminate it from the sentence and determine if the sentence still makes sense.

I have a sore throat. --> I have a throat.

This sentence can still be understood. "Sore" is an adjective.

I have strep throat. --> I have throat.

This sentence does not make sense.

Therefore, the word "strep" is not being used as an adjective in the sentence. Instead, it is being used as part of the compound noun "strep throat". Within that compound noun, "strep" is in fact used as an adjective of "throat", but the entire compound noun of "strep throat" is the target of "have".

"I have strep" is a sentence where "strep" is used as a commonly-understood abbreviation of "strep throat".

  • 2
    To further the analogy: the difference between "I have strep throat" and "I have a strep throat" is the same as the difference between "I have athlete's foot" and "I have an athlete's foot". If you keep the last in a freezer the authorities may be interested. – Stephen M. Webb Apr 26 at 20:07
  • I have the movies you asked me to bring. – JoeTaxpayer Apr 27 at 12:28
  • @JoeTaxpayer Yes, "the" can be used as an article if specific objects are being referred to (the specific movies you asked me to bring). Medical conditions are not referred to with "the" except in rare situations. For example, "I have the diabetes" would only be said jokingly because "the" sounds especially awkward. However, "I have the clap", a nickname for gonorrhea, is valid. In this case, "the clap" is a compound noun. – CrescentSickle Apr 28 at 2:18
  • Understood. Even so, there are times that “the cancer” also works. “If mom’s driving does kill me, the cancer will.” The rules are tough. – JoeTaxpayer Apr 28 at 2:21
  • 1
    Yes, I appreciate the extra clarification on this. English is my first and only language, but I’d never be able to teach it. – JoeTaxpayer Apr 28 at 2:41
11

If you say "I have a sore throat," the a refers to your throat, so this is grammatically correct.

In various medical texts "sore throat" without a is used when it refers to sore throat as a condition. This is a matter of the usage of medical terms. Most conditions (pneumonia, ovarian cancer, ulcerative colitis, tendonitis) are without a, but there are several exceptions (a common cold, the flu, etc.).

Strep throat is an infection of the throat by the bacterium Streptococcus, so it is much more specific than sore throat.

If you say "I have a strep throat infection," the a refers to an infection, not a throat or sore throat.

But you usually say "I have strep throat," without a, because here you refer to a condition.

Symptoms are more commonly used without a; it's again a matter of usage (cough is more common than a cough).

5

You can have a sore throat because of a number of different causes; a streptococcus ("strep") infection is just one of them. A strep throat is a sore throat but not always the reverse.

  • Nice thinking! You wrote "a strep throat", so you are considering "I have a strep throat" a valid sentence, aren't you? (My strep throat is an instance of strep throat) – Andrew Tobilko Apr 26 at 16:58
  • 3
    British people would probably say "I have a sore throat" whatever the cause, and I think "I have a strep throat" is more American. If someone said "My strep throat is an instance of strep throat" they would be grammatically OK but awkwardly repetitive. – Michael Harvey Apr 26 at 17:07
  • Yes, sure, it's repetitive. I was just making the point that "a" can be used there. Indeed, I saw "strep throat" is mostly used in AmE. – Andrew Tobilko Apr 26 at 17:17

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