Missing “The”: Is There an Upside to Ambiguity?

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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.”

A mom can dream, right?

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*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.”

25 thoughts on “Missing “The”: Is There an Upside to Ambiguity?

  1. Pingback: Missing “The”: More On The Importance Of Our Disappearing Definite Article | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. chxplow

    Thank you for sharing this, linguistics is so interesting and I’ll definitely be giving this some thinking over the next few days. I would guess that it’s because of our abbreviation-prone culture and the laziness with regards to grammar that comes with social media etc.

    1. I didn’t read the study, but perhaps this partly accounts for the decline in use. Texting, tweeting, emailing…we are dropping words that could possibly be “implied” due to word/character count?

  3. I am at fault not using the word “the” where needed. It seems like it has lost favor in recent years as speech and text is abbreviated without a thought to proper grammar. No surprise to me!

  4. I would love to see the study that finds reduced use. I note that all the commentators accept the study at face value. But any study can prove anything it wants, just by changing the phrasing of instructions given to participants, And are they finding the decrease in spoken language, written language or a combination? Note that I used the definite article in three out of the previous four sentences. I doubt that I have reduced its use and I wonder how the researchers came to their conclusions.

    1. Sure, you can see the methodology and the findings at the Language Log link in the post. There are certainly a lot of questions I have about the extent of the reduction in usage, but I do think many of us use “the” less often.

      1. I looked at it, and I wonder if the examination of two newspapers over an extended period is a good measure of the way we speak. I certainly don’t speak newspaperese and never have. The fact that they are literate newspapers may in fact be why they use fewer definite articles. Wary about ascribing responsibility by talking about the perpetrator of an act may lead them to talk more generally about potential perpetrators.

        1. It’s also an analysis of State of the Union Addresses, the BYU Corpus of Historical American English, and the Google Books N-Gram viewer (not all of them showed as much of a decline, but there was still a decline in usage). I think less literate speakers/writers use “the” less often–“the” is more formal.

  5. Sentences sound odd with it. I’ll continue using it until forced not to. Heck, the Oxford comma goes in and out of style all the time. Writing should be clear, and to that end, structure it for clarity.

  6. I put up a birdfeeder yesterday to entertain my bored cat, and I was sitting here watching the birds with him and thinking about why I didn’t say I put up the birdfeeder. It’s because the feeder I had last winter broke and I had to get a new one. So add impermanence to the list of reasons why the modern person uses the definite article less.

  7. My mother, who taught ESL classes and was then a Japanese translator (now retired) by profession, has a great teaching example for any “the” vs. “a” confusion: “He sent her a letter. She sent the letter back.” (sad story….) vs. “He sent her a letter. She sent a letter back.” (happy story!)

  8. Reblogged this on Adventures in Writing and commented:
    Strange to think that “the” is disappearing, though I’ve noticed that people talk in much less definite terms lately. Things like adding “I guess” at the end of food orders or using wishy washy phrases like “I think it might be this way, maybe.” While it seems strange, one thing that I remember from my linguistic anthropology class is that humans seek validation through speech, we seek to be assured that what we think and say is in line with what others think in order to maintain connections. Maybe losing “the” is simply another step in being unsure of ourselves, which is sad.

  9. Latin is perfectly expressive without unnecessary articles. When clarification is needed, speakers have many demonstrative adjectives at their disposal (this, that, those, etc.).

  10. Alexandrina Brant

    Perhaps we live in a society where, when time, space and character-count are limited, ‘the’ is one of the first words to be cut from things, due to most English-speakers being able to insert it subconsciously. Generally, from Twitter to undergraduate essays, if I go over the word-maximum, I will tend to look for articles to delete first; and I think a lot of people have this mindset nowadays.

    Sure, I think sometimes it’s interesting to remove the ‘the’ from things – if I want a character to imply to the reader that they mean something subtler than what they’re actually saying, I might cut the direct article. This also has the advantage of breaking up the speech and making it more realistic. Of course, I can’t say much about other sides of life, but I like your example that parenting shouldn’t have THE fixed way.

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