Why is there no article in "We are Family"?



Sister Sledge - We Are Family - YouTube
I've searched on YouTube a song named 'We are Family'

Why use the sentence without an article 'a' or 'the'?


Posted 2017-09-02T09:55:02.663

Reputation: 183

My answer citing Peter Master's paper distinguishing between the null article and the zero article may be of interest to you. According to Peter Master's terminology, I'd call this a use of the zero article, akin to his example "the boys ate (zero article) chicken". It's using family in the most generic (least specific) sense.

– Lawrence – 2017-09-03T23:22:24.590



Family as used in the title is an uncountable noun.

We don't use articles (a/the) to introduce such nouns.

Family can be countable or uncountable.

We need to be careful when thinking about the grammar of special text genre types such as titles, headlines, lyrics, elements of poetry, etc. The rules that describe more conventional prose are often deliberately abandoned or played with to attempt to achieve special meanings, double or blended meanings, etc.

We are a family can mean essentially the same thing as We are family or something very similar. If there is a difference intended in the title (and as the utterance is repeated in the lyrics of the song), it is likely that family is referred to in a more generalized sense, perhaps something closer to "We epitomize family" rather than simply "We are a particular family (among many other families)."

In this case, however, I don't see any reason to think about We are family differently in the song's title and lyrics differently than it is used in other genres (we might say ordinary prose, if there's such a thing).

The Oxford Advanced Dictionary marks [Personal pronoun] [be] family as informal in its definition of family as a noun that is "singular, uncountable":

(noun) 2. [singular, uncountable] a group consisting of one or two parents, their children and close relations - The whole family came to Grandpa's eightieth birthday party.
- The support of family and friends is vital.
- We've only told the immediate family (= the closest relations).
- I always think of you as one of the family.
- (informal) She's family (= she is a relation).

However, the expression seems to me not particularly informal in register. Perhaps it once was more so. Another dictionary does not mark it as informal:

In MacMillan Dictionary:
[UNCOUNTABLE] people who are related to you
We spent our vacation visiting family in Scotland.
We ought to help him, after all, he is family.

friends and family/family and friends:
We had Christmas lunch in the company of family and friends.

Jim Reynolds

Posted 2017-09-02T09:55:02.663

Reputation: 9 616


I would parse family in We are family as a predicate adjective, an adjectival subject complement, meaning "We belong to the same family" or "our relationship is that of family".

We can't ask her to leave. She's family.

That means "she is, or is like, a member of the [i.e. our] family".


Posted 2017-09-02T09:55:02.663

Reputation: 116 610

1You have sent me wandering in a wilderness lost. So far, I'm not moved from deeming it a nominative subject complement, headed by a nominal, or noun phrase: family. I ask if the complement modifies/describes or renames the subject. I think the most straightforward interpretation is that it is renaming/equating, not describing/modifying. We are [a] family more than We are familial/family-like. Adjectives as lexemes can typically be used in attributive position: We are smart. Smart us. A smart family are we. But *family us. *A family us are we. Adjs are typically gradeable and typically .. – Jim Reynolds – 2017-09-03T04:46:51.077

2inflected, but familier, famliest, very family, too family are all no go. Adjectives cannot be modified by other adjectives, and We are big/old family not good, yet We are beautiful family seems ok. Consider a similar utterance: We are love. Would you deem are love an adjectival complement? Ignorance is bliss? But I am certainly challenged here. Maybe there's a squishiness or maybe it can be an adjective phrase. I think I'm just missing something about the properties and functions of nouns that would let me make a stronger case. I referenced CGEL adjs & advs chapter. – Jim Reynolds – 2017-09-03T06:30:12.743

1When we say "X is {group}", "He's Apache" or "She's aborigine" or "He's Army" or "She's Harvard" the meaning is something like "is a member of {group}" or "identifies as {group}". That's rather different from saying "God is Love", I think. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2017-09-03T10:27:02.937

2And I'm talking about how it functions. When a noun is used attributively (e.g. "a family friend") it functions adjectivally. Is there anything that prevents an attributive use with the copula? Must an attributive noun appear before the noun in order to qualify as "attributive"? She is "of the family". – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2017-09-04T10:26:20.267

Your answer and comments have provoked a lot of thought for me, and I'm grateful for it. My questions above were asked in earnest, not as any sort of challenge intended to disparage your contribution. I'm an amateur grammarian, but interested. I know enough that the idea of nouns "functioning adjectivally" is not new. My current sense is that there is a "better" way of looking at the issue: That some nouns describe or limit other nouns, but are not adjectives: I think that includes family man and Harvard sweater. In He's KGB I have trouble seeing KGB as an adjective. – Jim Reynolds – 2017-09-05T05:34:12.533

I think something that is attributive, by definition (or at least by some definitions) means that syntactically it precedes a noun phrase, and functionally it describes/qualifies/limits/modifies. Have you seen the answer and discussion at https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/7895/why-isnt-there-an-article-in-if-youre-not-family ? It has--unfortunately, in my view--been deemed a duplicate.

– Jim Reynolds – 2017-09-05T05:41:55.520

@Jim Reynolds: I don't feel disparaged :) and I'm just an old-fashioned student of the language in any case. But I cannot agree that "He's KGB" or "He's Army through and through" or "she's family" are in any way similar to "God is Love". He is a member of the KGB. He lives and breathes Army. She's related to us by blood or as close to us as if she were. The subject complement there defines a trait of the noun, and it is in that sense that I would refer to it as "adjectival". – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2017-09-08T13:06:23.620

1@Jim Reynolds: No, I hadn't seen StoneyB's answer, but I certainly agree with his comment: "It's a predicate something"! – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2017-09-08T13:08:41.523

@Jim Reynolds: BTW, how do you understand "through and through" in "He's Army through and through"? What does it complement and how does it complement it? – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2017-09-08T13:12:58.123

Ummm... I don't know. My first feeling is that it's adverby. Replaceable semantically by "thoroughly". But it's interesting. – Jim Reynolds – 2017-09-08T14:45:18.090


In this phrase, "family" is being used as an an uncountable noun.

When used in this way, "family" has a more essential quality. It is as though "family" is a substance, and you're made of it.

Saying "we are a family" asserts that you're all related. You might say "my whole school is a family," which means that even without blood or marriage, you all consider yourself the same.

Saying "we are family" asserts your family bond, not the group. You might say "we are family" to explain why you were loyal to your siblings.

The singers in Sister Sledge are not just trying to tell you that they are related. They are talking about the active role they take in each other's life by being supportive and close to one another. So, they say "we are family."


Posted 2017-09-02T09:55:02.663

Reputation: 367

You said in a comment that this answer is wrong, but I think it raises some interesting and valid points. – J.R. – 2017-09-02T12:07:36.567

Yeah I flagged it for removal but then took a second look and decided the lyric interpretation was worth keeping so I squared it up. – Eikre – 2017-09-02T12:09:25.790