“To prom,” or “to the prom”—that is the question.

prom word

When I was in high school, no one I knew went “to prom”; we all went “to the prom.” It’s a subtle difference, but to me, it’s a big deal.

Until a few years ago, I never heard of anyone going “to prom.” But then, before class started a few times around 2009 or so, I heard some of my students talking about when they went “to prom.” To top it all off, I noticed that Axl on ABC’s “The Middle” went “to prom,” rather than “to the prom.” Something is rotten at the high school dance.

It never even occurred to me that “prom,” when used as a noun, would lack an article or a possessive pronoun. It just can’t be on its own. When I hear someone say “I’m going to prom,” it sounds to me as though the person is saying “I’m going to dance.” Of course, this is fine if the person is planning to dance (verb); a person can also promenade (verb). However, in all contexts in which I’ve heard “to prom,” it sounds distinctly like a preposition/noun combination, rather than like an infinitive verb.

Since this has been bothering me so much, I took my search to the Oxford English Dictionary.

There, I found the definition of “prom” referring to a dance is this: “A ball or formal dance at a school or college, typically held for the members of a single (typically senior) class near the end of the school year.” And there is NO verb form of “prom”; it is only a noun (not a verb), according to the OED.

However, I found some additional interesting information in the usage section of the “prom” entry: in each instance in which “prom” is cited in the singular from 1879 (when the usage of this colloquial term is first noted in English) through 1972, it is preceded by “the.” However, in the 2001 usage cited in R.B. Parker’s Death in Paradise, the sentence that the OED quotes is this: “I needed a date for senior prom.”

Where did “the” go?

WHERE???

Does anyone know why this happened, or how? Is “the prom” still acceptable, or am I showing that I’m a linguistic dinosaur every time I say “the prom”?

I know that this is a subtle change in English usage, but it’s been bothering me for quite some time. Let’s talk about it!

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