What part of speech is "the"?
Bill Poser notes
another Sign of the Apocalypse (Education Division):
Of all people (other than professional
linguists), you'd think that high-school English teachers would know
basic grammar, but they don't. In the past few years, two of my friends
in British Columbia have retreaded as secondary school teachers. Both
of them majored in English as undergrads and are now teaching English
or mostly English. One of them took a couple of linguistics courses as
well as a year of Carrier language, so she actually knows something
about grammar. When she did her practicum, she reported in dismay that
one of the regular English teachers was teaching that "the" is an
adjective and was not to be persuaded otherwise. The knowledge of the
other English teachers was no better, but such questions didn't arise
because they never expressed themselves on grammatical questions at all.
The problem with "the" (and many other items) is that the school
tradition about parts of speech is so desperately impoverished.
It's the Big Four (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) and the Little Two or
Three (preposition, conjunction, sometimes pronoun), plus an appendage
(interjection). Everything has to fit in here somewhere, and
since the parts of speech are defined semantically in this tradition,
"the" just has to be an adjective, because it's a kind of
modifier. What else could it be? (If you have pronoun as a
part of speech, that would be a very clever answer, but you're going to
have a lot of trouble convincing non-linguists of that.)
In fact, if you look up "the" in the OED, it's labeled "dem. a."
(demonstrative adjective). Ok, this is then glossed "(def.
article)", but the main part-of-speech classification is as a kind of
adjective. Hey, this is THE
English, the boss man of English dictionaries.
A scholar of Chinese literature asked me last week about English "much"
(as in "much difficulty"): what part of speech was it? I said
that it was a kind of determiner, more specifically a quantity
determiner. She looked despairing. Coming to her aid, a
scholar of medieval religion explained (genially, I should add) that
"in terms ordinary people know, that would be an adjective". (At
the Stanford Humanities Center, we believe deeply in cross-disciplinary
conversations, but these require a certain amount of
negotiation.) And yes, in those terms, he was right; any kind of
modifier of a noun counts as an adjective. (A position that
quickly leads you into all sorts of problems. What about the
first word of noun-noun compounds, like "Christmas cookie"?
"Christmas" here is functioning as a modifier, so it should be
classified as an adjective, but it sure looks a hell of a lot like a
The deeper problem is the school tradition itself. It's a TRADITION
after all -- a system devised in the past and treated as a kind of
dogma in the present. The idea that you could DISCOVER
what the parts of speech in some language are, that this is (in
principle) an empirical question, is foreign to this way of
thinking. Even stranger is the idea that there could be a whole
lot of them, some of them subtypes of others, and some of them
overlapping. Still stranger is the idea that though the parts of
speech of one language will usually correspond very roughly to those of
another, there can be considerable differences. But linguists are
here -- and have been for a very long time -- to tell you that you
should take these ideas seriously.
In the meantime, a linguist who proposes to introduce, say, the
technical term determiner
a class of pre-adjectival modifiers in English that includes the
articles, demonstratives, quantifiers, possessives, and more is likely
to be seen as UNDERMINING
tradition, casting off the
sureties of the past in favor of fashionable jargon. Evil,
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 30, 2006 02:31 PM