Adventures in Grammar–Definite and Indefinite Articles
I can’t believe you are reading this. Didn’t the title put you off?
But this is actually kind of interesting. The other day I was thinking about all the things I was taught in school that have not stood the test of time. I’m not talking about things that have legitimately changed, like Pluto not being a planet any more. I’m talking about inviolate truths that aren’t so true in reality. And one of them has to do with the word ‘the.’ Yes, ‘the.’
What got me started was an experience in a restaurant. Have you ever noticed that ordering food in a restaurant requires a slightly different manner of speaking? Normal, i.e., not restaurant food, is called simply what it is: a steak, a salad, a baked potato. But when food is prepared in a restaurant, for some reason it has to be prefaced with the word, “the.” I don’t know why this is.
Consider the following exchanges.
Waiter: And what sort of salad would you like? We have Caesar, Mixed Greens, Greek and Oriental.
Customer: Um. I’ll have The Mixed Greens.
Waiter: And what dressing would you like. We have Italian, French, Russian, Serbian, Franco Prussian, Sino Japanese, Raspberry Vinaigrette, Ranch, Balsamic Vinegar, Red Wine Vinegar, Poppyseed, Bleu Cheese, Caesar, Hannibal, Napolean and Thousand Island.
Customer: Uhhh. I’ll have The French. (Technically, shouldn’t a statement like that terrify the nation of France?)
Waiter: And for your entre?
Customer: I’d like The pork chops.
Waiter: Any soup?
Customer: Yeah, The French Onion.
I ask you, why do people do that? I don’t remember learning it in school. I don’t remember my mother telling me when I went out on my first date, “Be a gentleman and preface everything with ‘the.’
I looked back to my education. I learned that there are two articles in English, ‘the’ and ‘a’/’an.’ ‘The’ is a definite article, which you use when referring to something specific while ‘a’ in an indefinite article which doesn’t refer to a specific item.
It sounds simple, but it isn’t. For example, if there are only two articles in English, definite and indefinite, why didn’t I say in the previous sentence that “‘the’ is the definite article?” If it’s the only one, it’s gotta be specific doesn’t it?
So now I was totally confused and started to think about how we (mistakenly? I don’t know) use the word ‘the’ when we mean something non-specific.
A lot of times when referring to ourselves, we could say ‘my’ instead of ‘the’ but for some reason we use ‘the.’ I wonder if this is to depersonalize things in some way. Remember Forrest Gump? “Where did you get hit son?” “In the buttocks, sir.” Not, my buttocks. Or just plain buttocks. But the buttocks.
Cops talk that way all the time. “What part of the body was dug up first?” “The foot.” Why would it be ‘the?’ We don’t know which one it is. It could be right or left.
So do doctors. “When we remove the brain, we can go in through the eye or the ear.”
Not to mention drill sergeants and bosses. “If you ever do that again I’m going to give you a boot right in the ass.” Note that the drill sergeant is half right. Because he doesn’t specify which boot he will use, he correctly says “a boot.”
It’s the same thing with possessions. For example, when taxes go up you might hear someone say, “This is going to hit me right in the wallet.” Why not say ‘my’ wallet?
Or what about: “How’s business?” “Down the toilet.” Now which toilet is that? Technically. it should be ‘a‘ toilet because we don’t know which specific toilet the business is going down. It’s the same with windows. “How are your plans to buy a new house?” “Out the window.”
It’s probably one of those things where what sounds better and what we heard from our parents while growing up prevail over grammatical rules and logic. So the drill sergeant could say “I’ll give you my boot in your ass.” Technically correct, but not as effective in my opinion. Similarly, having a business go “down the toilet” sounds much more final and regrettable than “down a toilet.”
But I still don’t think that “the Caesar salad” sounds right.
PS–Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends in the US!