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Defining the Word 'The': A Linguistic Meditation

Updated on May 10, 2016
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.

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Today we want to think a little bit about the word THE. The first thing to say is that I am writing from the perspective of a native-born citizen of the United States of America. I am writing from the perspective of American English, then, as opposed to British English.

No big deal?

Well... maybe not but it is a minor deal. The word 'the' is not quite used the same way in England as it is in the United States of America. Or, more precisely, I should say that there is a context in which we Americans feel the need for 'the' and the British do not.

In the United States we say: I am going to the hospital.

In England one says: I am going to hospital. Specifically omitting the the word. I'll come back to this difference a little later.

Now then, without looking at a dictionary, how would you define the word the?

Its not easy, is it?

Well, if I may---one way we might think of it is as a kind of presentation word, something offered up "for your consideration," if you will. The specifies the place to where I am going, in the case of "hospital," for example.

In the United States I would say: I am going to the hospital to get my gall bladder removed.

In England one says: I am going to hospital (specifically omitting the 'the') to get my gall bladder removed.

Again, one wonders why it is, that in England, one does not feel the need to preface the word hospital with the "presentation" word 'the.'


There is another way that we used the word 'the.'

Suppose I introduce you to a friend of mine called John Harper.

You say: Do you mean The (perhaps the 'the' is conceptually capitalized; but it is pronounced 'thee') John Harper?

In this instance you clearly mean to indicate that if this is 'thee' John Harper you are thinking about and hope it is, he is to be distinguished from all other, rather run-of-the-mill John Harpers of the world. This particular John Harper is famous and/or important; or, at least this particular John Harper has particular significance for you personally.

But to return to our hospital example, so far, a couple of weird questions occur to me: 1) Should we, in the United States of America, be saying---I am going to 'thee' hospital to get my gall bladder removed.---in order to distinguish it from.... what?; 2) Why is it, that in the United States, we feel the need to preface "hospital" with the presentation word the, as if to say "for your consideration," whereas in the UK, they do not feel the need to offer up the "hospital" "for your consideration"?

Stay with me.

I---the person writing this---am originally from the state of New Jersey, in the United States of America. New Jersey is off to the northeast corner of the country. It is part of a triumvirate known as the "tri-state area": New York, New Jersey, Connecticut.

In New Jersey, where I'm from, when one says, "I'm going to The City," she means New York City and nowhere else. In this instance the word 'The' from "The City," is meant to indicate the N.Y.C. is the exemplar city, the template city, the city by which all other cities are measured.

New York City is taken to epitomize what city living (and city nightlife) is all about, or should be all about, in one way or another. There is a snappy little jingle about New York City: "the city so nice, they named it twice."

But when we say, "I'm going to the ("thee") hospital to get my gall bladder removed," we are not epitomizing anything. We do not mean to reference a specific, exemplar hospital the way we do when we, in the northeast United States, refer to "The City."

So, again, why do we, in the United States, feel the need to attach the presentation word 'the' to hospital, whereas they do not feel the need to do so in England? (In most other instances, as far as I am aware, we in the United States, and "they" in England, use 'the' in the same ways).

Stay with me.

One says: I am going to the University of Virginia in the fall.

One does not say: I am going to Virginia University in the fall.

One also does not say: I am going to (omitting the 'the') University of Virginia in the fall.

In American English, the presentation word the customarily precedes 'University," in this context.

One says: I am going to Fairleigh Dickinson University in the fall.

One does not say: I am going to the University of Fairleigh Dickinson in the fall.

Fairleigh Dickinson is simply not referred to as "the University of..."

And yet the word University is in the title of both 'the' Virginia and Fairleigh Dickinson institutions of higher learning.

Also one does not customarily say: I am going to the Fairleigh Dickinson University in the fall.

Fairleigh Dickinson is a proper name, and therefore, its own distinction. The only context in which one would use to presentation word 'the' (pronounced "thee" is somewhat sarcastically; or as a genuine means of distinguishing it from the "run-of-the-mill" Fairleigh Dickinsons of the world---but then again, that doesn't make much sense, does it?)

One more time

One says: I am going to Rutgers University in the fall.

One does not say: I am going to the University of Rutgers in the fall.

One also does not say: I am going to the Rutgers University in the fall.

Question: Why is it that out of the Virginia, Rutgers, and Fairleigh Dickinson institutions of higher learning, which all have the word university in their title---only the Virginia institution carries the word "University" preceding the "Virginia" in the title; and this being the case, why is the Virginia institution the only one that seriously carries the presentation word of 'the' preceding it?

Possibilities

1. One difference between the three is that "Virginia" is a state in the Union.

2. This being the case, perhaps, "The University of Virginia" is mean to signify that this particular institution is the exemplar institution of higher learning in the whole state, that it is best representative of all the best of the secondary education experience in all of Virginia.

3. I have never heard of a "The University of New Jersey." Does that mean there isn't one? If there isn't one, does that mean that there is no singular institution of higher learning in all New Jersey, which best captures the secondary school experience? If that is true, is this a good thing or bad thing?

4. When you really think about it, to say "The University of Rutgers," would be nonsensical, since what we would be saying, in effect is: "The University of Rutgers is exemplary and representative of the entire "Rutgers" experience of higher education." In other words, 'X' cannot be the epitome of 'X.'

If I say to you---"Hand me the water bottle"---I mean that you should give me the water bottle, as opposed to the cellphone or the ipad. At that moment, "The water bottle" is the only water bottle in the world that exists for me, at that moment. Therefore, not only is "the" water bottle to be distinguished from the cellphone or the ipad, it is to be distinguished from all other water bottles in the world.

Another thing that is indicated about "the water bottle," in this context, is that both you and I can see it. You are most likely closer to it, which is why I am asking you to hand it to me.

On the other hand, if I say to you---"Bring me a bottle of water"---something else is happening.

a. If I ask you to "bring" me a bottle of water, this mean that I cannot see "it."

b. If I talk about "a" bottle of water, there is no longer any attachment to specificity. I don't care "which" bottle of water you bring me, so long as you bring me one.

c. The concept of "the bottle of water" is no longer relevant. "Bottle of water," then, has become abstracted as we move from the (specific) to a (generalized or abstracted).

When I say---I am going to the hospital to get my gall bladder removed---I am being vaguely and abstractly specific.

That is to say, that out of all the hospitals in the world where I might, theoretically go, I mean to go the one that is closest to where I live or where I happen to be at the time. I mean to go the nearest qualified hospital from where I live or where I happen to be staying. I may not know the name of that particular hospital before I go there; I have to look it up on somebody's Smartphone or something.

What I mean to say is, like the water bottles, I am going to a hospital. The abstract becomes concrete and specific as the focus tightens.

In England when one says---I am going to hospital to get my gall bladder removed---she surely means the same thing we do. She means that out of all the hospitals in the world she might, theoretically, go, she means to go the hospital that is closest to where she lives or happens to be staying at the time.

She surely means to say that she is going to a hospital.

In the United States, however, the abstract becomes specific when we land at a particular hospital to get our gall bladders removed.

In England, rhetorically speaking, the abstract remains abstracted when we land at a particular hospital to get our gall bladders removed.

In the United States of America there is a distinction between going to "the free clinic," for one's healthcare needs, and going to "the hospital." The presentation word 'the' provides a useful differentiation between "the" free clinic and hospital.

One is free and the other is not.

Tell me: What do we say when the abstract goes through its movement and remains abstract? Isn't this a way of signifying a lack of meaningful differentiation? Isn't this a way of signifying that one is as good as any other?

What does it mean when we travel from a to the (or "thee")? Isn't this a way of signifying the existence of a substantial degree of meaningful differentiation? Isn't this a way of signifying that one is, indeed, not as good as any other; and that there may be levels of quality involved?

I don't imagine they have "free" clinics in England. I shouldn't think there'd be much need for them since they have Universal, Single-Payer healthcare coverage for every English man, woman, and child. Healthcare is free for everyone.

As you know, in the United States of America, there is a qualitative difference between the care one can get from a free clinic and that available at a proper hospital. Therefore, in America, the distinguishing and epitomizing 'the' is appropriate to designate the hospital as representative of the best of the American medical system. Such a "presentation" word would not be meaningful in the UK, for the reason I just stated.

Thank you for reading!

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    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      2 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thanks, Frank. I really do appreciate your loyal support!

      Take care.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      2 years ago from Shelton

      what an interesting concept my friend.. yeah worth the read

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      2 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      @Yanglish: Thank you so much for the kind word about the hub. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      Take care.

      W.T.

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      2 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thank you, lions44. I appreciate the kind word and the generous offer to "share" this essay.

      W.T.

    • Yanglish profile image

      Yanglish 

      2 years ago

      Thank you for this insightful hub.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      2 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Fantastic hub. Real food for thought. I've wondered about this myself. Sharing everywhere. Thx.

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