September 02, 2006

What's the name of your university?

Mark Liberman reports on the renaming of Peking University as the University of Beijing (in English), with a shift from the premodifying form "X University" to the prepositional form "University of X", the reported justification having been a "rule of English grammar" that "place names used as adjectives in school names are frequently found only in abbreviated names in speech; in formal written language, the place name should be placed after 'college' or 'university' as a noun."

Mark notes that this purported rule of grammar (call it the P Rule) is easily refuted -- I'll expand on this point -- though he admits that the statistical preference seems to be for the prepositional form; I'll expand on that point, too.  And then I'll refute the claim that the premodifying form is found mostly in abbreviated names in speech.  Along the way I'll point out a part of this system of naming where variant forms, not differing in meaning, are freely tolerated -- against the pronouncements of many usage advisers, who take the position that consistency requires choosing a single form in such cases.

I'll start with the U.S.  For good practical reasons -- the country has such a huge number of universities, most with place names in their names -- for each U.S. university, only one of the two forms is acceptable.  There is no alternation between the premodifying and the prepositional forms, no "Pennsylvania University" as an alternative to "University of Pennsylvania" (even the university press takes the long form: "University of Pennsylvania Press"), no "University of New York" as an alternative to "New York University".

In any case, exceptions to the P Rule are easy to find: with state names, Indiana University and Ohio University; with city names, Auburn University, Boston University, New York University, Princeton University, Santa Clara University, Syracuse University.  In Pennsylvania, the second-tier state universities systematically have premodifying names: Bloomsburg, East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, Millersville, Shippensburg, etc. University.  In two cases, additional material is needed to avoid ambiguity, but the premodifying form is preserved: California University of Pennsylvania, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

A further wrinkle in the U.S. university system is that many states have public universities with the word "State" in their names, and these are almost all premodifying: Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc. State University.  The State University of New York is the really notable exception here.  (Rutgers is officially "Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey", but nobody refers to it as SUNJ, parallel to SUNY.)  In most of these cases, "X State University" has to be distinguished from a distinct institution named "X University" (Ohio State University vs. Ohio University) or, more often, "University of X" (Arizona State University vs. University of Arizona).

As this were not already complex enough -- foreigners find this profusion of minimally different names baffling -- very often "X State University (at) Y", where X is a state name and Y is a city name, presents itself as "Y State University", giving still more premodifying names: California State University at San Jose = San Jose State University.  Along the same lines, State University of New York, Plattsburg = Plattsburg State University.  Note how alternative names have crept into the system.  (In some states, some universities are officially named "Y State University", with no available longer alternative "X State University (at) Y": Kent State University, in Ohio, for instance.)

These alternative names are, in a sense, abbreviations, but they are not particularly informal in style.  Informal abbreviations are often available, however: "X" for "X University", "X State" for "X State University: Syracuse = Syracuse University, Kutztown = Kutztown University, Chico State = Chico State University (= California State University at Chico), Kent State = Kent State University.  When no confusion of names can result, "X State" can sometimes be further abbreviated to "X": Chico = Chico State. (There are a fair number of wrinkles in the scheme of abbreviations: for instance, "Boston University" and "New York University" are never abbreviated to "Boston" and "New York", but instead are referred to informally by the initialisms "BU" and "NYU".)

Meanwhile, institution names with the head "College" are almost all premodifying: Amherst, Boston, Colorado, Connecticut, Haverford, Ithaca, Middlebury, Santa Clara, Wabash, etc. College.  (There are exceptions: the College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio, for instance.)

On to the prepositional forms.  The big generalization here is that almost every U.S. state, from Alabama to Wyoming, has a "University of X" in it (Indiana, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio are notable exceptions).  And an enormous number of cities have a "University of X" in them: Akron, Baltimore, Bridgeport, Cincinnati, Dallas, Dayton, Denver, Evansville, Hartford, Houston, just to pick some random examples from early in the alphabet.  Remember that Beijing is a city name, so that "University of Beijing" would be a reasonable choice for a university name.  But "Beijing University" would be entirely well-formed; there is no P Rule.

(As for abbreviations, "University of X" and "University of X (at) Y" are often informally abbreviated as "X" and "Y", respectively, when no confusion can result: Alabama = University of Alabama, Akron = University of Akron, Berkeley = University of California at Berkeley.  Once again, there are a fair number of wrinkles and anomalies, like Berkeley being referred to informally as "Cal".)

Names change over time.  Santa Clara College, founded in 1851, had a premodifying name, as we'd expect for a name with "College" as its head.  (The College of New Jersey, founded in 1746, took the other route.)  When Santa Clara  College presented itself as a university, in 1912, it changed its name to the University of Santa Clara, in line with the dominant "University" pattern.  (The College of New Jersey, meanwhile, made the leap to university in 1896, and shifted to a premodifying name, Princeton University.)  By 1985, the University of Santa Clara had wearied of being confused with that other, much bigger California university USC, the University of Southern California, and switched back to premodification, as Santa Clara University.

Keeping universities apart can be tricky.  San Francisco has a branch of  the California State University in it: California State University at San Francisco, which can then be known as San Francisco State University, or just as San Francisco State.  (An initialism, "SFSU", is also used.)  Fine.  San Francisco also has a branch of the University of California in it: the University of California at San Francisco, which might, parallel to Berkeley, have been referred to just as "San Francisco", except for the existence of yet another institution, the University of San Francisco, whose name would also abbreviate to "San Francisco".  So neither of them abbreviate this way; people use initialisms -- "UCSF" and "USF" instead.  Down south, the San Diego area has both SDSU (a branch of the California State University), also known as "San Diego State", and UCSD (a branch of the University of California), known as "La Jolla", from the town it's located in.  Yes, outsiders find all of this endlessly confusing.

The U.K. has many fewer universities than the U.S., but the explosion of institutions since World War II has produced some nomenclatural subtleties, though nothing as severe as in the U.S.  There's the Brighton area, which has the University of Brighton and also the University of Sussex, Brighton; the latter is actually in Falmer, outside of Brighton, but nobody calls it "Falmer" -- or, of course, "Brighton", that would be just too confusing -- so people call it "Sussex".

Here's the thing:  in the U.K., the official names of universities with place names in them are (I think) all of the prepositional form, "University of X", but almost all of these names can vary freely with the premodifying "X University".  "The University of Sussex" and "Sussex University" are SYNONYMS, and the latter is not notably informal.  If you go to the websites for the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford, you'll immediately see premodifying references: "a brief history of Cambridge University", "information about: Oxford University".  And the legal names of their presses are premodifying: Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press.

Some other websites are sticky about the prepositional form -- The University of Edinburgh (yes, with obligatorily capitalized "The", even in references to "The University") and The University of Manchester, for instance -- but outside of printed material subject to university enforcement of this form, you can find plenty of premodifying variants, and the university press names are premodifying: Edinburgh University Press, Manchester University Press. 

The alternation between prepositional and premodifying forms is so natural for the British that they find the rigid American naming schemes bizarre; surely, "Arizona University" is just another way of saying "the University of Arizona", they think, and are annoyed to be told sternly that there is NO SUCH UNIVERSITY as Arizona University.

The notable exception in the U.K. is the University of London, possibly because it's a particularly loose federation of "colleges".  "London University" really doesn't work, and the press's name is "The University of London Press".

Otherwise, variation is all over the place.  People might be getting slightly different effects by choosing one of the variants over the other, but I suspect that mostly people choose the premodifying variant because it's shorter, by two words, the "the" and the "of": Omit Needless Words!  There certainly is no meaning difference.

Now, this is just the sort of situation that most advisers on usage just hate.  Given two very similar forms to choose between, they'll strive mightily to tease out a subtle semantic difference that has to be preserved by choosing correctly (seasonal vs. seasonable, or in behalf of vs. on behalf of, or on the contrary vs. to the contrary) or they'll label one variant as colloquial, informal, conversational and so to be avoided entirely in formal writing (determiner a lot of, lots of), or they'll proscribe one of the variants entirely (restrictive relative which and hundreds of other cases), in the name of consistency.  What they don't like is people choosing one variant in one place and another in another place, apparently on a whim.  Ordinary people, however, like variety; they like being able to make choices, even if they can't explain why they make one choice one time and a different one another time.  The British university naming scheme is a triumph of variety over enforced consistency.

I've looked some at the Canadian system, which looks much like the U.S. system, though perhaps with an even stronger preference for the prepositional forms when place names are involved: University of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Ottawa, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, Sudbury, Toronto, Victoria, Windsor, Winnipeg, etc. (but: Cape Breton University, and a few others).  No one refers to British Columbia University, Ottawa University, or Toronto University. (Here, as elsewhere, premodifying names tend to be very strongly preferred when personal names rather than place names are involved: McGill University, for instance, and Victoria University for universities named AFTER Victoria, as opposed to U.Vic., which is IN Victoria.)

The one island of variation I've found so far is the University of Waterloo, which is sometimes referred to as Waterloo University, and has a premodfifying press name, Waterloo University Press (compare University of Toronto Press, UBC Press, etc.).

Australian usage (or, for that matter, New Zealand or South African or Indian) I don't know enough about to comment on sensibly.  The websites for Australian universities whose names involve place names seem to be uniformly prepositional, but actual practice might be closer to the British system than to the North American one.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 2, 2006 02:29 PM