Earlier this year, I learned that “the,” our trusty definite article, isn’t around as much as it used to be. As I wrote in Missing “The”: Is There An Upside to Ambiguity?:
Linguist Mark Liberman first recognized this trend while analyzing State of the Union addresses, concluding that [the disappearance of the definite article] 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.”
Back then, I suggested that our decreased usage of “the” could be “a sign that we’re less inclined these days to convey superiority in our diverse society,” using the example of framing parenting advice as “a way to raise children” instead of “the way to do it.” (maybe someday).
I also wondered about when “the” still matters*–when it cannot be replaced by “a” or “an.”
A few weeks ago, Mr. AMB came across a good example of the continuing importance of “the,” a word that even a mighty insurance company couldn’t circumvent in an attempt to deny coverage to a policyholder.
Yes, the example comes from a court case about insurance coverage, Mutual Benefit Insurance Company v. Politsopoulos, which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided on May 26, 2015. My husband sent me the decision shortly after it came out, but it took me forever to read it. The opinion is only 16 pages long, but the subject matter is very, very boring (though important).
Hopefully, my effort to explain it won’t be equally dull. Here goes:
The case is about a commercial liability insurance policy that covered more than one entity at the same time. In this case, it covered a restaurant and the owners of the property where the restaurant was located.
The insurance policy contained an exclusion. As explained in the opinion, “the policy did not provide coverage pertaining to liability for injury to ‘[a]n employee of the insured arising out of and in the course of… [e]mployment by the insured[.].’”
The Justices had to decide this question: What could the “the” in “the insured” possibly mean????
The insurance company essentially argued that “the” was interchangeable with “an,” meaning any entity insured under the policy wouldn’t have insurance coverage when sued by employees of any of its co-insured entities (not just when it was sued by its own employees).
The insurance company lost. As the court explained:
“[W]e are persuaded that, at least where a commercial general liability policy makes varied use of the definite and indefinite articles, this, as a general rule, creates an ambiguity relative to the former, such that “the insured” may be reasonably taken as signifying the particular insured against whom a claim is asserted.”
If the insurance company wanted the exclusion to apply more broadly, it shouldn’t have used the definite article in the provision.
We can glean at least three lessons from this case: (1) Words matter; (2) “The” and “A/an” aren’t the same; and (3) Insurance cases are incredibly boring.
*And, like last time, Mr. AMB quips, “It makes all the difference.”