Why isn't there an article in "if you're not family"?



[Fred] “Merry Christmans!”
[George] "Hey, look –– Harry's got a Weasley sweater, too!"
Fred and George were wearing blue sweaters, one with a large yellow F on it, the other a G. "Harry's is better than ours, though," said Fred, holding up Harry's sweater. "She [my mother] obviously makes more of an effort if you're not family."
(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

Why isn’t there any article before family?


Posted 2013-07-06T12:15:26.157

Reputation: 25 811

Question was closed 2017-09-04T22:39:27.340



BE family is a well-established idiom meaning "to be (or to be accepted as) a member of [the speaker's] family".

I suspect that it arose in the first instance because English has no adjective which means "belonging to a family". The regular adjectival form of family, familiar, very early took the figurative meaning "intimate" as its primary sense; consequently the noun itself, used attributively (family jewels, family tradition), has been since the 17th century the only form available as an adjective for the literal sense.

However, use as a predicate adjective (e.g., "They're family") was largely colloquial and had a "down-home", almost dialect feel until the hippie era, when the notion of unrelated individuals constituting a "family" took hold. Sister Sledge's enormously popular 1979 song, "We Are Family", became the anthem of this sentiment (though the song itself celebrated an actual family relationship). Since then the expression has flourished, as may be seen in this Google Ngram:

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StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2013-07-06T12:15:26.157

Reputation: 176 469

The next page of the example has “Christmas is a time for family.” In this case what’s the reason that has no article? – Listenever – 2013-07-06T13:49:53.603

1Interesting question. Family in that context has the same meaning as families, as in, "Christmas is a time for families." They both mean the same thing, roughly. Using the singular family would mean "Christmas is a time for families to get together, and be close." The singular refers to the conglomerate of families, so to speak. It's not unlike how we can say "the world of sport" or "the world of sports" to refer to athletics in general. – J.R. – 2013-07-06T14:17:56.417

1@Listenever What J.R. says. To say of someone that She is family means "She is a member of our family"; but a time for family refers to all families. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-07-06T15:14:17.007

@StoneyB, isn't 'family' a predicative adjective in 'she is family'? – Listenever – 2013-07-06T15:21:43.637

1@Listenever It's a predicate something - I'd say adjective, as in the body of my answer, meaning "of our family". – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-07-06T16:51:04.963

@StoneyB, Thank you. Oxford Advanced says 'family' in 'she's family' is a noun––and so probably prescriptivists would say it’s a noun, yours maybe a representative example of descriptive ones. And I would not hesitate to jot it down in my book––I had to change my Harry Potter book after all the notes and modifications. – Listenever – 2013-07-06T22:08:50.293

1@Listenever It's an artificial distinction, anyway; the Greeks and Romans classified what we call adjectives as nouns. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-07-06T22:23:53.450

Not so long ago, I was surprised by a similar usage of the word "human". For example, I'm not a fish person. I'm human. Even though, unlike family, human can be both noun and adjective, I thought it would be more logical to use a noun here for consistency. But from my research, you often say 'I'm human' instead of 'I'm a human'. Go figure. – stillenat – 2013-07-09T11:57:21.147

I don't see how or why (be) family would be an idiom. The meaning is or is accepted as/considered a member of our/some family seems directly interpretable. I'd also suggest an additional possible meaning (though not in the context of this question): To epitomize the concept of family. Similar to something like: *Though many actors have played him, to me, Roger Moore is James Bond.* Granted, the emphasis may be necessary to mark this sense. – Jim Reynolds – 2017-09-04T01:19:34.543

I think we can distinguish family in the instant sense as a noun, and show that it is not an adjective. This is not to discount the idea that the distinction is artificial in some sense (nor to discount how interesting or important that kind of issue may be). The definition is a grammatical one, not a direct representation of physical or metaphysical reality, but then so too is the idea that fire is a noun, a point Pullam makes here: http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2012/06/20/being-a-noun/

– Jim Reynolds – 2017-09-04T01:26:06.017

I've suggested reopening the question. While the questions are obviously very similar, the fact that the other question refers to a title of a song may provoke different answers. Beyond that, the answers on both items seem of potential heuristic value sufficient to justify retaining both. – Jim Reynolds – 2017-09-08T03:16:00.503