I know that, in general, we use an article before a name of a profession.

For instance:

He is a doctor.

But should we put an article in the following cases?

Mr. Smith, a doctor, works…

Ms. Smith, public health nurse, was born…

Mr. Smith, the third chief of justice of the Supreme Court, did…


1 Answer 1


Yes, we usually use the indefinite article when we describe someone's occupation in a construction with be:

He is a doctor.

But when we name a unique role or task, we either use the or omit the article altogether:

John is (the) captain of the team.

Since the team has only one captain, we are free to omit the.

When we put the person (he, John) and the "describing element" side by side (apposition), the same principle applies:

John, (the) captain of the team, said: "We are going to win this match".


Mr. Smith, a doctor, works...

... is okay.

But since "public health nurse" is not a unique role or task, we should use a:

Ms. Smith, a public health nurse, was born..

"Chief Justice of the Supreme Court" is a unique role, so the is omissible:

Mr. Smith, (the) Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, did..

But we do not drop the if it stands before an ordinal number that describes a person's position among other persons of the same rank, hence

Mr. Smith, the third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, did..


P.S. If you're interested, in Unit 5.37 Quirk et al. start off by describing noun phrases in copular relationship (constructions of the type "Mr. Smith is a carpenter", where 'is' is a copular verb). Then they point out that you can omit the indefinite article in the following "as-constructions":

her duties as (a) hostess
my appointment as (a) lecturer
Jung as (a) thinker

It's interesting why exactly we can omit a in these cases. The authors write "compare with 'unique role', Unit 5.42". Could "hostess, lecturer, thinker" be understood as "unique roles" in specific contexts? I don't know. Article usage is hellishly complex.

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    Thank you very much for complete answer. It is very conclusive for me, but I have met the expression "Lillian D. Wald, public health nurse and __________, was born in Cincinnati Ohio, in 1867" in the TOEFL test. Are there any exceptions to this rule?
    – arsast
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 14:09
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    Regarding omission of the definite article - we sometimes do that when something is a title, or treated like one. For example, "He is captain of the team", or "She is hostess of the party." When we elide the explanatory bit (of the team or of the party) we still omit the article. I don't have a good reference for this, though!
    – stangdon
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 14:10
  • @arsast - good point! I'm at a loss. Maybe I've overlooked something. Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 14:14
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    @arsast - in this PDF from the NY Public Library, written apparently by a native English speaker, a similar sentence uses "a public health nurse" (see page 3). Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 14:26
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    @arsast - if your TOEFL page is from this book, then it might be a typo, since the authors are not native English speakers. We've been discussing the question in the chat, and Damkerng found this excerpt from this book with your sentence. Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 14:33

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