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The definite article

July 21, 2012

In Jenny Diski’s (very good) book, What I Don’t Know About Animals, I came across the following sentence: ‘After that [the second chapter of Genesis] animals are entirely in the control of man…’ This got me thinking about the role of the definite article in English. It might seem unimportant, a merely formal grammatical marker of nouns, which some languages (eg Japanese) don’t even have. But sometimes it makes a vital difference to meaning, as here: ‘in the control of man’ clearly means that man controls the animals, but take away the – ‘animals are in control of man’ and it clearly means the precise opposite.

There are other occasions when the definite article conveys a shade of meaning. For instance, when we are talking about certain institutions, we don’t usually use the definite article if we actually belong to the institution: eg we go to church, or we go to school or university, or we are in prison or hospital. But if we’re not members, but merely visitors or workers, then we do use the definite article: ‘I think I’ll go and look round the church’; or, ‘I’m working late, I’ll be at the school until 8.30’.

This difference is not so well-observed in US English, however. I’ve noticed that Americans often say ‘He’s in the hospital’ where a British speaker would say ‘He’s in hospital’. 

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