Tuesday, March 3, 2020

"The" Post

In the 1970s, there was an odd movie produced by Neil Simon: Murder by Death. It included a cavalcade of talent including Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, Peter Falk, Alec Guiness, Peter Sellers and more. For the "non-boomer" reader, these were once Hollywood superstars, one and all. Neil Simon was a prolific writer responsible for shows dating to the 1940s. This movie is sometimes confused with Clue that followed the next decade, perhaps because that too starred the unparalleled Eileen Brennan. 

Murder by Death featured jokes with more offense. There were unfortunate plays on words, ribald jokes, and various exhibitions of inappropriate intolerance. It is most doubtful that such a film would be released today. In just one such unfortunate string of dialogue, the writers belittle a Chinese detective who has made various statements without including "the." The character played by Truman Capote losses his temper and the following exchange occurs:
Sidney Wang: What meaning of this, Mr. Twain? 
Lionel Twain: I will tell you, Mr. Wang, if YOU can tell ME why a man who possesses one of the most brilliant minds of this century can't say his *prepositions* or *articles!* "What IS THE," Mr. Wang! "What IS THE meaning of this?" 
Sidney Wang: That what I said! "What meaning of this?"
I am not sure why, but that exchange stuck with me over the years. It is likely how I first remembered the part of speech called an "article." I am not sure why we need to know such labels, but I recall one of my grade school teacher finding importance there. 

I was reminded of this exchange, and the article "the" when I recently read Is this the most Powerful Word in the English Language? on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) website. The author makes a case for the primacy of the ubiquitous "the," despite it not being "descriptive, evocative, or inspiring." Perhaps its influence is in frequency; we are told that it is the most frequently used English words English, "accounting for 5% of every 100 words used.“ The is pervasive. 

This article proceeds to explain that "the" and other words like it are "functional words." It/they helps us to "make sense" of nouns as either "a subject or an object." Thus, we have a distinction in our expression between "I ate an apple" and "I ate the apple." There is a "signal (of) something important" with "the." It focuses us upon the distinction that is this particular apple. With "the," we perceive importance in what follows, a particularity. An interviewee for the story reminds us that words are not necessarily singularly important, but instead "power in language comes from context."

It is also noted that "the" does not exist in all language. Instead, some languages utilize "an affix" on the end of a word to denote the particular rather than general connotation between "an apple" and "the (particular) apple." Other languages use neither such an affix or an article. Therefore, those who natively speak other languages may struggle to "construct a sentence in English," because of the reliance it places on articles. There is therefore factual foundation for why Mr. Wang might struggle to utilize such an article. 

The article notes that even native English speakers may be markedly different, specifically referring to "British and American English." It concludes that British are perceived as opting for "the" in instances in which Americans do not. I have long been distracted when a British speaker says someone is "in hospital." But, it contends that we are perhaps not even consistent individually in our use of "the." And, as curious, we are not necessarily consistent between our verbal and written use of "the." It is considerable, with "the" generally occurring "about a third less in spoken language."

There is allegedly or perceptively also a gender issue. The article says that men are more likely to use "the." A provided explanation for this is troubling, referring to tendencies to "take the voice of authority." It notes that also that "those in higher status positions also use ‘the’ more," perceived by some as "a signal of their prestige and (self) importance," as in "the prime minister" or "the president." The same is asserted regarding use of "the" to convey importance of a thing such as "the migration problem." Thus, a potential that articles convey emphasis in some instances and distinction in others. 

The real point, of course, is that our speaking and writing are challenges that we face. Our language use, consistency, and tendencies may stem from our native language, our education, and more. We are different. That does not mean we are right or wrong (despite what my grade-school teacher insisted with her red pen), merely different. There is strength gleaned from our struggle to master language, but also in our acceptance of the use others make of it. That one does or does not use prepositions or articles as you would is not a reflection on them as Lionel Twain intimates in the movie. 

Judgement based upon word and language choice is not helpful. Instead of becoming distracted by some missing article, let us strive to focus on the merit of the idea expressed. Perhaps the point is in the details of what is said more than in the articles, prepositions, and verbs. If we allow ourselves to be distracted by the missing article or word choice, perhaps we could miss the point?