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

The Misfortune Of Knowing

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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…

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