Missing “The”: More On The Importance Of Our Disappearing Definite Article


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.”


  1. I hadn’t thought of legal implications of “the” and “a/an” before — thanks for the on-point case! — but I too have been paying more attention to articles lately. I had a Russian-speaking exchange student who told me that Russian language doesn’t use articles at all. I’ve also noticed that British/Canadian English leaves out “the” in constructs like “He’s going to hospital” or “She will go to university.” So I’ve been trying out sentences, playing around, seeing what happens when I don’t use either. I’ve noticed that articles tend to soften up the sounds of a line of poetry, and so leaving them out makes the poem sound more blunt, powerful.
    But as your post suggests, there are interesting shades of meaning difference between “a thing,” “the thing,” and “thing,” the last option seeming perhaps more universal, more of the concept — “loaf of bread” — whereas “a loaf of bread” or “the loaf” seem to refer more to particular objects. Maybe. “A loaf of bread” actually seems pretty abstract, too, now that I write it.
    I don’t know all the implications, but I like that language offers so many possibilities!

    1. “I’ve also noticed that British/Canadian English leaves out ‘the’… I’ve noticed that articles tend to soften up the sounds of a line of poetry, and so leaving them out makes the poem sound more blunt, powerful.”

      These are very interesting observations. The original analysis was mostly based on American texts, making me wonder if the same trend can be seen across the pond or to our north. Maybe not! I wonder if they used “the” more often in the past.

  2. Hi, that was very interesting: you address def v indef article specifically.

    In creative writing the ambition is to ditch either, wherever possible – constant repetition is tiresome to the eye, it is laboured prose.

    Early drafts have ‘the’ scattered all the way through. When the write becomes more sophisticated you try to kill them off – same as not beginning every sentence with ‘I,’ by way of example.

    Well that’s me 🙂

    See you

    1. “In creative writing the ambition is to ditch either, wherever possible – constant repetition is tiresome to the eye, it is laboured prose.”

      It makes sense to streamline writing. I can see why “the” would lose out. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I think it’s fair to say that many of today’s writers write the way they speak. The contretemps between the and a/an is small peanuts compared to the wholesale loss of understanding about personal pronouns. When I see “her and I” I want to scream. I suspect that the move to the indefinite is part of the widespread belief that if there is one of something there must be another. How do we know that? When a one-of-a-kind dress is worn at the Oscars, knock-offs are in the stores within a week. Because everybody has to have one.
    Think of all the brouhaha about how many “the”s are in the name of Darwin’s signature book. We willy-nilly want to put in more.

    1. “When I see “her and I” I want to scream.”

      I am no grammarian, but even I want to scream when I see that! Sometimes it’s just a typo. Other times, it’s an indicator of a bigger problem in our educational system.

  4. I wouldn’t have ever thought of an “an vs. the” issue! This might not be exactly on topic, but I’m hating the whole “dropping pronouns” trend in social media and even professional emails. “Am going to ___ today.” “Am hating this.” (lol) Like, is it really that taxing to just write a little ol’ “I” at the beginning there? It’s really grating my nerves!

    1. Yes, that annoys me too! It might just be the next evolutionary turn in our language. I’ll have to see whether any linguists have written about it.

  5. Legal disputes really dig into every word! No wonder lawyers make great writers. I find myself intentionally cutting out “the” a lot. Often it’s because I wouldn’t miss it if it wasn’t there, so away it goes. When it’s the best choice “the” is absolutely an important word. Now I’m going to be hyper conscious of “the” all day!

    1. I’ve been hyper conscious of “the” every since I read about Liberman’s observation/finding. I tend to use “the” a lot, but most of my writing is very formal (legal writing).

  6. I depend on my writer’s ear to tell me when “the” should be replaced with “a/an.” But I’ve noticed a lot of authors don’t have a well-developed ear and often can’t tell the difference. There is one, though.

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