This simplest of words can be used for dramatic effect. At the start of Hamlet, a guard’s utterance of ‘Long live the King’ is soon followed by the apparition of the ghost: ‘Looks it not like the King?’ Who, the audience wonders, does ‘the’ refer to? The living King or a dead King? This kind of ambiguity is the kind of ‘hook’ that writers use to make us quizzical, a bit uneasy even. “‘The’ is doing a lot of work here,” says Rosen.
‘The’ can even have philosophical implications. The Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong said a denoting phrase like ‘the round square’ introduced that object; there was now such a thing. According to Meinong, the word itself created non-existent objects, arguing that there are objects that exist and ones that don’t – but they are all created by language. “‘The’ has a kind of magical property in philosophy,” says Barry C Smith, director of the Institute of Philosophy, University of London.
‘The’ adds substance to phrases like ‘the man in the Moon’, implying that he exists (Credit: Alamy)
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a paper in 1905 called On Denoting, all about the definite article. Russell put forward a theory of definite descriptions. He thought it intolerable that phrases like ‘the man in the Moon’ were used as though they actually existed. He wanted to revise the surface grammar of English, as it was misleading and “not a good guide to the logic of the language”, explains Smith. This topic has been argued about, in a philosophical context, ever since. “Despite the simplicity of the word,” observes Thoms, “it’s been evading definition in a very precise way for a long time.”