Have you seen “The” lately? Apparently, it hasn’t been around as much as it used to be. I wouldn’t have noticed its absence without those fine folks over at Language Log, who found that “[d]uring the course of the 20th century, the frequency of the English definite article the decreased gradually and radically.”
Linguist Mark Liberman first recognized this trend while analyzing State of the Union addresses, concluding that it could be a sign of increasing informality in the speeches. With the help of an impressive undergraduate paper at Penn, he later discovered that there is an overall trend of “decreasing definiteness” in our language: “the frequency of the has decreased by about half; the frequency of a/an has increased by about a third (though of course the overall frequency of a/an is much lower).” The collections he assessed were mostly of written works in American English, which makes me wonder if this trend is also happening to our north and across various “ponds.”
Thanks to this analysis, I’ve been thinking about “the,” a word I’ve previously taken for granted. I use it often, including in the title of my blog, though I don’t know how my usage of it compares to the new norm in our society.
So when does “the” matter?* To me (an admittedly poor grammarian), “the” is important when it specifies a noun. For instance, saying “I doubt the book portrays Harper Lee in an unfairly negative light” is different from saying “I doubt a book portrays Harper Lee in an unfairly negative light.” In the first example, it’s clear I’m talking about a specific book (which is The Mockingbird Next Door), while the latter example is a more general statement. “The” makes a difference.**
But is “the” really necessary anywhere else? It would sound strange to me to strip “the” from the side of proper nouns like The Misfortune of Knowing or The Paris Review, but only because I’m used to hearing it that way. “The” isn’t otherwise important. It merely emphasizes the uniqueness of a noun that is inherently one of a kind.
Whether or not “the” matters, it seems to be disappearing, and it’s interesting to think about what this “decreasing definiteness” says about our language and our society. “The” is already a streamlined definite article in comparison to its counterparts in other languages in that it’s the same for plural and singular nouns and it’s also gender-neutral. Omitting its unnecessary uses further simplifies our language.
Its decreased usage may also be a sign that we’re less inclined these days to convey superiority in our diverse society. For example, in the future, maybe more people will frame parenting advice as “a way to raise children” instead of “the way to do it.”
*I have no problem with starting a sentence with “So,” no matter how much it may annoy others.
** Mr. A.M.B. quipped, “it makes all the difference.”