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Adventures in Grammar–Definite and Indefinite Articles

November 23, 2009

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!

51 Comments leave one →
  1. Pretty Project permalink
    November 24, 2009 3:37 am

    I’m not sure how you created a funny post about grammer but you did. Well done! Ha! 🙂

  2. FrancesBean permalink
    November 24, 2009 4:08 am

    I’ve always seen it as ordering the “steak offering” on the menu, which would seem to me to be a definite thing ( “the” steak tartar vs “the” t-bone steak). Though I always order “a”caesar salad, or “a”cobb salad.

  3. November 24, 2009 5:44 am

    We have that issue in exaggerated form in journalism.

    In most American magazines and newspapers you will see phrases such as: “Microsoft, the software company…” or “Brad Pitt, the actor,…”

    Clearly there are other software companies besides Microsoft and other actors besides Brad Pitt.

    So our housestyle at The Economist is to say “Microsoft, a software company,…” etc.

    But I’ve noticed that this sometimes sounds stupid. For some reason, when you say “the software company”, it sounds as though you’re acknowledging that the reader already knows it. When you say “a software company” you seem to allege that the reader doesn’t, and is therefore stupid.

    I don’t know why that is. But I think your explanation lies thither….

    • November 24, 2009 7:22 am

      Thanks for the observations. Your second last (or is it second from the last, or just plain penultimate) paragraph contains the seeds of another grammar exploration!

    • Jesse permalink
      November 24, 2009 11:29 am

      But I don’t believe “Microsoft, the software company…” or “Brad Pitt, the actor,…” is incorrect. All that is being established is that Microsoft is a software company, not the only one, and also that it is not a bakery within the context of the article/story. It should be a definitive statement, right?

      For instance:

      “Microsoft, the bakery,…” establishes that we’re talking about the bakery, not the software company.

      “Brad Pitt, the accountant, visited Brad Pitt, the actor,…”

  4. Steven Harris permalink
    November 24, 2009 6:02 am

    Maybe the Caesar salad fancies ‘having’ the French. It would require an invasion, after all.

  5. November 24, 2009 6:41 am

    Hmmm…It may not technically right but it most of the situations you mention,’the’ definitely sounds better.

  6. November 24, 2009 6:44 am

    Aint it the truth. This takes the cake. Tickles the heck outta me.

    These are examples of how “the” identifies articles as familiar. What if you put “proverbial”, et al., in front of your “the” examples?

    • November 24, 2009 7:18 am

      Great idea. But then I’d get worried about whether sometimes it should be archetypal vs. proverbial?

      • November 24, 2009 8:15 am

        Take the worry out by splitting the difference!

  7. November 24, 2009 7:03 am

    Just happened upon your blog … LOVE it!

    … you had me at “grammar,” for I, too, am a word-nerd! lol

    Keep up the good work! 🙂

  8. flamingo permalink
    November 24, 2009 7:19 am

    I love this!! The title didn’t put me off it drew me right in but then I am a fellow grammar freak. Hope you will read my article in “flamingo tales” on here – it’s called “I don’t want to talk grammar I want to talk like a lady”

  9. November 24, 2009 8:06 am

    What, Pluto’s not a planet?

    The title caught my attention, so I had to check it out. You raise some good points. The thing is with the is that when ordering food at a sit down restaurant the use of the has to do with it being a more formal situation, which of course has nothing to do with the rule, at least as far as I know.

    It’s funny – sometimes the wait staff will say something like: “And what will we be having?” when addressing an individual, or the entire party as he expecting all to order at once. And I agree that it sounds absolutely ridiculous to say, “I’ll have the Chilean Sea Bass and the unoaked Chardonnay”. Or for that matter to say, “we’ll have the Sea Bass”, when you are a party of one. On the other end of the spectrum, it sounds simply rude, albeit efficient to order coffee at a Dunkin Donuts, without using a verb: “small, 5 sugars”, or “large with milk, no sugar”…and of course you have to say it fast, or they’ll screw up the order. And at some burger joints the use of a number is all it takes, ” number 4 to go”. No verb, no article – just burgs and fries.

  10. November 24, 2009 8:25 am

    Yes! I’d forgotten about “What will we be having?” I’m sure there’s some ritualistic behavior going on. By the way, glad to hear you get your coffee at Dunkin Donuts instead of you know where!

  11. November 24, 2009 8:32 am

    Good essay! I’m always glad to see another grammar maven.

    Somebody once said, “When you learn to speak good English, to whom are you going to speak it?”

    “The” is rightfully called “the definite article” (not, you’ll notice, “definite article”), to distinguish it from all the other kinds of articles (like hairbrushes).

    When the customer (not “customer”) says, “I’ll have the Sole Muniere”, he means something like, “from that long list you recited, the one I’ll have is the …”.

    Omitting the “the” (not just “Omitting “the”…) certainly wouldn’t inhibit underdtanding.

    Consider: “Cops talk that way all the time. “What part of the body was dug up first?” “The foot.””

    Say it again without “the”: Cops talk that way all the time. “What part of body was dug up first?” “Foot.”

    Now you’re talking! … like a Yorkshireman.

    At the risk of beating a (not “the”) dead horse, I’ll add that when the customer says “I’ll have the steak”, he means “I’ll have that particular steak you mentioned (or the one on the menu)”, not some anonymous steak the chef may find laying (not lying) about in the kitchen.

    • November 24, 2009 8:48 am

      Thanks for the observations. You raise an interesting nuance (or is it a nuanced point?). If the waiter states the options, then “the” makes sense because the customer would be referring to the item stated by the waiter. Is it the same if the waiter doesn’t recite the items? If I’ve read the menu, as someone else has pointed out, I would be referring to the item I wanted on the menu. But then we get into all sorts of linguistic and metaphysical issues (i.e., the description of [the] sole muniere in the menu is not the actual sole muniere that I will be eating–it is ‘a/the’ description of ‘a/the’ dish). Don’t you love fun and games with English!

  12. stevewthomas permalink
    November 24, 2009 8:48 am

    I have a feeling this is going to drive you a little nuts, but here goes. . .
    In the context of a conversation about menu choices — and I emphasize choices — using “the” as a modifier is not actually incorrect. . .When offered a series of choices, as in the salad dressing scenario, responding with “I’ll have “the” French” is similiar to saying, “I’ll have “the” secpnd choice”, which, in this case, is “the” French! So, it may be aggrevating in the extreme but it ain’t wrong. The post was, by the way very funny!

  13. November 24, 2009 9:29 am

    We’re reading it because we miss English as we knew it. We are all a bit bothered by the loose use of English that all this instant communication is reaping.

    Things like “you’re” more often than not is being replaced by “your”. It doesn’t sound the same and it doesn’t mean the same thing, but WE’RE IN TOO BIG A HURRY these days.
    This was a very good read. Thank you.

  14. November 24, 2009 9:49 am

    Great English lesson. Thank you. Here is the difficulties from our French point of view. You have The (definite) a/an (indefinite) and what we call here in France the “empty space”. So we have to understand 3 nuances of English. Maybe you can tell me what would be the siutation for “information”. Definite article or not?
    And think about fries , no definite article turned into French fries. No article neither while you have an adjective that defines the fries. As far as I remember there is an empty space in front of the word.
    So what is the mystery of the article?

    • November 24, 2009 11:40 am

      Thanks for your observation. With respect to fries it gets even worse when someone says, “I’ll have some fries with that.”

  15. momromp permalink
    November 24, 2009 9:57 am

    This was great fun to read. Grammar is fascinating stuff; I always enjoyed seeing sentences deconstructed in a diagram. Perhaps you can do a equally entertaining post about other grammatical misuses (its v. it’s, between you and I, etc.).

    • November 24, 2009 11:41 am

      Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for the idea. Between the things people have mentioned here and daily examples I’m sure I’ll have something to talk about!

  16. November 24, 2009 9:59 am

    “But then we get into all sorts of linguistic and metaphysical issues …”

    I suppose that depends on what the meaning of “issues” is …..

  17. AlexLewis permalink
    November 24, 2009 10:08 am

    I was amused.

    I think that in the restaurant context, using ‘the’ does make a bit of sense. We are referring to a given item on the menu. Presumably there won’t be two varietals of onion rings available. If there were, I suppose you’d say ‘I’ll have an onion ring, the Russian style, if you please.’ But this has already been argued.

    Another funny bit was your using ‘the French’ as an example… I assume this was intentional… As, indeed, this is how that country refers to their own language (they say, ‘Do you speak the French?’ or ‘Long live the French!’ and so on. We certainly do nothing of the kind in English… And in the US, it’d be wholly out of order.)! I don’t know much about French grammar, but I’m guessing their usage of articles is quite a bit different than our own…

  18. November 24, 2009 10:20 am

    As ZZMike, one can say whatever food item or side dish or choice of dressing without putting “the” in front.

    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?

    Reminds me of learning French in high school.


    are the possessives pronouns for
    My (feminine, masculine, plural nouns)
    Your (informal)
    Your (formal)

    with Le/La/Les/L’ as “the” for masculine, feminine, plural nouns, and nouns that being with a vowel.

    We learned that when one is talking about oneself, one doesn’t have to say “my” possession/property/body part because it is assumed that one is talking about “my” possession. So, instead of saying “je me suis coupées mes cheveux,” (I got my hair cut –if written by a female), one would say, “je me suis coupées les cheveux” (I got the hair cut –literally).

    In Mandarin, every noun must be accompanied by a unit word. For example, one doesn’t just say, “book” or “a book.” One must say, “一本書” (yi ben shu, which more or less means “this one book”).

  19. Irene Suwarno permalink
    November 24, 2009 10:54 am

    I’ve never prefaced food with ‘The’, I always said it without ‘The’.

  20. raramuristar permalink
    November 24, 2009 10:57 am

    It was THE title that attracted my attention. I am striving to learn to speak english correctly and there is no better way than to learn from those who know. Thank you very much for your blog, it was not only educative but amusing too.
    Best regards from Mexico. Keep the good work up!

    • November 24, 2009 11:37 am

      Thanks for the comment–I’m sure my Spanish would give you some good laughs! Glad you enjoyed the read.

  21. November 24, 2009 10:58 am

    I think using the definite article is more satisfying to the ego. (Yep, I used “the” twice in that sentence alone.)

    For instance, if I say, “I’ll have the salmon,” I am acting as if there’s a slab of salmon JUST FOR ME back in the kitchen.

    If I only say, “I’ll have salmon,” or “I’ll have a salmon filet,” then doesn’t it sound like any old person could walk in off the street and order salmon? How commonplace, after all.

    I suspect the origins of ordering “the” steak began with folks in high society, somewhere in Europe, placing orders in restaurants that they knew most people would never be able to afford. And now we all do it.

    Another one that always makes me chuckle is when waiters act like they own the food they food they’re about to serve. I might ask, “could I please have wheat toast with my eggs?” and the waiter would respond, “I have honey wheat, whole wheat, and sourdough.” –As in, HE is responsible for all the breads, whereas all he did was show up for work at 6 AM and found out what kind of bread is on hand today.

    Anyway, thanks for posting. Great job!

    • November 24, 2009 11:36 am

      Yes, I forgot about that habit of waiters, as in “I’m out of the salmon.”

  22. November 24, 2009 11:07 am

    Gotta love what you wrote here. Never thought about it before but you certainly raise a good point. It’s similar, in a nutty way, how New Jersey is referred to as just Jersey, while New York is always referred to as New York and not just York.

    The things that make you go, hmmmmm.

    Valentine deFrancis

  23. flamingo permalink
    November 24, 2009 1:20 pm

    Yes good point someone made – can you do the you and I thing? I spend my life trying to explain to people (my children think I’m a nightmare) why it’s “between you and me” – but to no avail. I guess people don’t have the vocab and understanding to get their heads around subject and object maybe. Or maybe I just bore the pants off them with my constant ravings 🙂

    • November 24, 2009 1:26 pm

      The way I rememembered it was between has tw in it like two so it’s between the two of us. I’m sure there are exceptions to that rule.

    • November 24, 2009 2:06 pm

      “Me” is an object. “Between” is a preposition. All prepositions need objects. “Just between you and me, I’ve got something to say….” (as DC Talk once sang).

      and “You and I must make a pact, we must bring salvation back” (as the Jackson 5 once sang).

  24. November 24, 2009 2:04 pm

    My big brother is a stickler for poor grammar.
    And since he’s taken the pleasure to enlighten me, every time I hear my client (who is a very smart person and probably banks 6 figures) use the word “irregardless”, I grind my teeth. Arg.

  25. November 24, 2009 2:37 pm

    Some of us (strangely, I will grant you) were attracted to the title. (No accounting for taste, hmmm?)

    Ah, the perils and puzzles of the spoken word. And since you’ve used all those The French examples, might I say that the last bastions of protecting one’s language (the French) now routinely incorporate American words into their spoken and business lingo?

    Merde alors! Much to the dismay of those of us who were once purists, who learned otherwise with enormous exactitude (and headaches), in a variety of schools.

    (And seeing the French-fondled-formations of originally English terms is funny to boot.)

    Given all that –

    The origin of “to boot” and “going against the grain” and so many other expressions? Now that’s fun – digging around in those tasty terrains.

    • November 24, 2009 4:47 pm

      I really like the phrase “to boot,” though I had only heard of it when I was in college (over five years ago).

      • November 24, 2009 5:17 pm

        I once heard a person in the military say that they were told that if they kept failing to meet expectations, they would get a boot of such velocity and force that their “breath will smell like shoe polish.” A rich construction that is probably no longer used in the modern military!

  26. November 24, 2009 4:35 pm

    it’s funny but real 🙂

  27. November 24, 2009 11:03 pm


    Perhaps when restaurants, as we know them today, started (XVIII century?) they’d only have one big steak, one fish, one salad. The waiter would ask: “May I recommend the duck?”

    The clients would have to book it or dispute it on-spot: “Yes, I’ll have the duck!” – “No, Sir, I beg your pardon but *I* want to have THE duck! You might have THE pork!” – “I won’t pardon ye, scoundrel, and I’ll never have THE pork! Take a step outside!” – “Fine, Sir – THE blade will show ye what it means to take away THE duck from me!”

    Then they’d go outside and fight. And the waiter probably thinking “Well, we do have three ducks in the kitchen, actually.”

    Errr… I digress.
    Have a good peaceful lunch.

  28. November 25, 2009 2:13 am

    DC Talk and the Jackson 5 are both correct.

    I’m not sure if Big Bad Voodoo Daddy are right when they sing, “you and me and the bottle make three tonight.”

    Should it be “you and i” ?

    Something else that bothers me:

    “I could care less.”

    No, actually, it’s “I could not care less. I care so little that I could not care any less.”

  29. The Big 'B' permalink
    November 25, 2009 2:30 am

    I believe that English is a funny language but the point that you make about using ‘the’ instead of using ‘a’ while ordering a dish at a restaurant,

    I believe that we make such mistakes is because everyday day (English) language that we speak is different from what we write and what we learn from our grammar schools etc etc.

    But I did this exercise with my self I was repeating the order in front of a mirror and I think it sounds good when you say ‘The french dressing’ ; ‘The pork chop’; The mixed greens which I say is something natural, but this is my observation but my other observations about poeple says that many people learn or grasp English sentences by listening to people around them and gives little consideration to what they have studied or what is the write way??

    However if you see when it comes to writing english we start making a real use of it and start considering what and where article or verb should fit the best…so I think it is all to do with our interaction with the world which makes difference to how we want to make it sound for us …. the more we discuss the more funny it gets and it is good to read all different comments on this topic……I may be wrong on some points that I have mentioned above but that is just my points. Good one Thomas…….

  30. November 25, 2009 4:14 am

    its quiet homourous, but yeah i have to say it was a great post , the first line of the post tempted me to read the whole text !!!

  31. November 28, 2009 3:30 am

    Oh my god loved reading your article. I submitted your rss to my reader.

  32. December 1, 2009 5:00 am

    Funny article.

    When we train students to take the SAT, we tell them to use a for the indefinite, such as “a number of women went to the theatre.

    They use the for definite, such as the number of women at the theatre doubled last night.

  33. December 1, 2009 12:01 pm

    Yes, that’s how I understand it. But I’m still confused, as in: “Last night I felt like a steak so I went to a restaurant and ordered the steak!”


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