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My question is if there were some "movements" that propose to remove definite and indefinite articles completely in the last 100 or 200 years (or even more older).

E.g.

"a book" will be just "book"

"the book" will be just "book"

If you think this is weird, well, for a non native speaker of English could be weird that the words doesn't have genders like for example in German (der Man, die Frau, das Auto).

I just want to be sure that there were no such movements and tendencies.

To make my question more "sane" for a native English speaker I would give you these examples of omitting indefinite and definite articles in English: computer program menus, newspaper headlines, song/movie titles, dictionaries, computer languages and other technological areas where people don't use articles at all I am sure you have noticed that at least on your Mac OS or Windows.

Another thing is that some languages like Latin or Slovio and almost all Slavic languages don't have articles that need to be before a noun like in English (maybe except Bulgarian; but there it is as a suffix).

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Collins Cobuild has a 100-page monograph just dealing with the different current usages of a / an and the. They're very useful in many ways - why should they be dropped? –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 16 '13 at 15:56
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(1) There have been "movements" or one sort or another to change just about anything in English, since there was English. (2) None of them ever came to anything. (3) I haven't ever heard of one about removing articles, though it is clear that speakers of languages without articles often find them a trial. (4) In any event, they have a lot of functions in English (as you doubtless know) and those functions would have to be replaced by new constructions if articles were omitted. Any suggestions? –  John Lawler Jun 16 '13 at 16:18
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Just as an example, losing the indefinite article would mean that English needn't distinguish between predicate adjectives like I'm tired and predicate count nouns like *I'm doctor, which currently needs an article. And it would lose the distinction between a few people waved and few people waved. There are thousands of cases like these, fixed phrases, idioms, metaphors, nonce forms, etc. They're all automatic. I think most native speakers, even trying to omit all articles, would trip pretty fast, because we don't think of them as separate words; they're really clitics. –  John Lawler Jun 16 '13 at 17:36
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@Fumblefingers: You're right, that most of the comment is about current usage. The problem, I think, is that to a native English speaker, the question is like "has there ever been a movement to get rid of the liquid in drinks". We know (rightly or wrongly) that nobody sane would make such a suggestion, but we're struggling how to get that intuition across to Defders. –  Colin Fine Jun 16 '13 at 17:37
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No, that's exactly my point. I'm not talking logic or objectivity. To you, who speak a language without articles, articles in English seem like an optional extra, and you can imagine a movement to eliminate them. I am saying that to me, and I think to most English speakers, articles are a deeply entrenched part of the language. It's not that we can't imagine language without them: as you have reminded us, there are many examples. Those of us who are linguistically savvy can imagine English without them. But it wouldn't be English. –  Colin Fine Jun 16 '13 at 22:00

6 Answers 6

Although I have no certain knowledge of whether there have been specific "movements" to remove articles from the language, it is almost impossible for a native speaker to conceive of the existence of such a movement. Removing definite and indefinite articles would amount to the destruction of one essential element of the language. The presence and usage of articles in English is absolutely fundamental to the very structure of the language. Don't forget that language is both a reflection of the way one thinks, and (as we are now learning more and more) a formative force in the way one thinks. What this means is that the very thought processes in the brains of native speakers of English are wired to operate along pathways that require these articles. Pulling the articles out would be like turning off your headlights while driving your car at night; you can't find your way without them.

To address your examples of where articles are omitted, each of these cases has specific reasons and justifications for their removal, and the absence of the articles serves specific purposes. In the case of song titles, the reasons are essentially poetic ones, in which evocative and creative use of the language is paramount. In the case of computer program menus, the absence of articles is to highlight the function of the item listed in the menu. In the case of dictionaries, articles are omitted because the words themselves are the objects of attention, instead of the items to which the words refer. I could go on, but I think you see my point.

There are languages (French, for example) which utilize articles in more syntactical places than English does. For an English speaker learning French, the additional usages are initially challenging, because our mental language wiring doesn't include those pathways. But they are essential to the structure of French, and dropping them would make no sense to a French speaker. Dropping the "additional" uses would disrupt the language just as much as dropping all articles would disrupt English. It just wouldn't be feasible.

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Because the articles have MEANING and USEFULNESS, to the point at which they are ESSENTIAL to differentiate statements in important ways and avoid profound confusion. If we didn't have them, we would be lost without their functions. How would we accomplish all the crucial effects we create with articles if they were gone? They are no less useful than prepositions. If you had no words for "to" and "from" (and much more), wouldn't you have a terrible mess? –  John M. Landsberg Jun 23 '13 at 9:33
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And when you say they are not important, you are quite simply ignoring their importance. They are very important. Why do you refuse to see this? They have functions which no doubt are accomplished BY OTHER MEANS in your language. Pay attention to those functions; think about how you accomplish them in your language. The functions are essential to understanding what we are saying. If you take away the articles, you take away their functions. Take away those same functions from your language (however it is you accomplish those functions), and imagine what a disaster that would be. –  John M. Landsberg Jun 23 '13 at 9:36
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John Lawler already gave you an excellent example of how the loss of an article can completely change the sense of sentence in English. "A few people waved" means something entirely different from "Few people waved." In the first, we are saying "there were some people who waved." In the second, we are saying "not many people waved," and the structure emphasizes that it was an unusually small number of people. I am baffled by your insistence on stating something that is clearly not true. I am also baffled why you seem so angry, when we are trying to very calmly and rationally discuss this. –  John M. Landsberg Jun 24 '13 at 4:56
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We are trying to help you understand, but you insist on the decision you have already made, that somehow an essential element of our language is illogical. If you don't want to listen to the opinions of experts, why do you even bother to ask the question? And by the way, since English has been around in some form for about 1700 years, and articles are found in the oldest forms, I think your assertion that English will be "simplified" to remove articles doesn't hold water. If it hasn't happened in 17 centuries, why would it ever happen? –  John M. Landsberg Jun 24 '13 at 5:05
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@Derfder: "Do you know any language that doesn't use article?" How about Japanese? It relies on context, plurality, additional syntax and other constructions to supply the functions for which English would employ articles. Without other aids, many Japanese sentences are hopelessly ambiguous. You can infer the meaning, but that means you have to infer it. What's your problem with English using articles to make the language more precise? Your test examples are crap, and what we infer from them is that you aren't speaking English very well at all. –  Robusto Jun 30 '13 at 13:14

Existing English language Movements and Campaigns

Here is a list but by no means extensive:

  • Cut Spelling In the 1970s the Australian psychologist Valerie Yule found that many irregular spellings arise from redundant letters. These are letters which mislead because they are not needed to represent the sound of a word. Writers then cannot tell from a word's pronunciation which letters its written form requires, nor where to insert them, while readers are likely to mispronounce unfamiliar words containing them. A group within the Simplified Spelling Society therefore decided to explore which letters are redundant in English, and the effect their removal has on the appearance of the resulting 'cut' text. This Cut Spelling (CS) is now used for the rest of this column and for the next in order to demonstrate that effect.

Esy readng for continuity.

One first notices that one can imediatly read CS quite esily without even noing th rules of th systm. Since most words ar unchanged and few letrs substituted, one has th impression of norml ritn english with a lot of od slips, rathr than of a totaly new riting systm. Th esential cor of words, th letrs that identify them, is rarely afectd, so that ther is a hy levl of compatbility between th old and new spelngs. This is esential for th gradul introduction of any spelng reform, as ther must be no risk of a brekdown of ritn comunication between th jenrations educated in th old and th new systms. CS represents not a radicl upheval, but rather a streamlining, a trimng away of many of those featurs of traditionl english spelng wich dislocate th smooth opration of th alfabetic principl of regulr sound-symbl corespondnce.

  • English-only movement also known as Official English movement, refers to a political movement for the use only of the English language in official US government operations through the establishing of English as the only official language in the United States of America.

  • Plain English Campaign (UK) Since 1979, we have been campaigning against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information. We have helped many government departments and other official organisations with their documents, reports and publications. We believe that everyone should have access to clear and concise information.

  • Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) a group of federal employees from many different agencies and specialties who support the use of clear communication in government writing. Our goal is to promote the use of plain language for all government communications. We believe that using plain language will save federal agencies time and money and provide better service to the American public.

  • ProEnglish Founded in 1994 it is an American non-profit lobbying organization that supports making English the only official language of the United States.

  • SaypYu The Spell As You Pronounce Universally project promotes "the simple universal phonetic alphabet" which is intended to facilitate a quick and convenient writing system for verbally penetrating foreign situations and pronouncing unusual place-names reasonably quickly and accurately.

  • Simplified Technical English It offers a carefully limited and standardized subset of English. It is now officially known under its trademarked name as Simplified Technical English (STE). Although STE is regulated for use in the aerospace and defense industries, other industries have used it as a basis for developing their own controlled English standards.

The Simplified Technical English specification consists of two Parts:

  • Part 1: Writing Rules,

  • Part 2: Dictionary. Writing Rules

The Writing Rules specify restrictions on grammar and style usage. For example, they require writers to:

  1. Restrict the length of noun clusters to no more than 3 words
  2. Restrict sentence length to no more than 20 words (procedural sentences) or 25 words (descriptive sentences)
  3. Restrict paragraphs to no more than 6 sentences (in descriptive text)
  4. Avoid slang and jargon while allowing for specific terminology
  5. Make instructions as specific as possible
  6. Use articles such as "a/an" and "the" wherever possible
  7. Use simple verb tenses (past, present, and future)
  8. Use active voice
  9. Not use present participles or gerunds (unless part of a Technical Name)
  10. Write sequential steps as separate sentences
  11. Put commands first in warnings and cautions, with the exception of conditions

    • SoundSpel is an English language spelling reform proposal. Its origins date back to 1910

Example:

The Star by Herbert George Wells

It was on the ferst dae of the nue yeer the anounsment was maed, allmoest siemultaeniusly frum three obzervatorys, that the moeshun of the planet Neptune, the outermoest of all planets that wheel about the Sun, had becum verry erratic. A retardaeshun in its velosity had bin suspected in Desember. Then a faent, remoet spek of liet was discuverd in the reejon of the perterbd planet. At ferst this did not cauz eny verry graet exsietment. Sieentific peepl, however, found the intelijens remarkabl enuf, eeven befor it becaem noen that the nue body was rapidly groeing larjer and brieter, and that its moeshun was qiet different frum the orderly progres of the planets

  • Speak Good English Movement (Singapore) The campaign aims to discourage the use of Singlish and encourage the use of a more standardised form of English (i.e. generally modelled on the British standard).

And then frankly I gave up.

As far as I can tell there has never been nor will there ever be a movement to eradicate articles from the English language.

EDIT: For those whose curiosity has been whetted, may I recommend reading this answer by Alain Pannetier who gave a splendid summary on the history of the indefinite article here: http://english.stackexchange.com/a/35385/44619

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@Derfder Particularly note item No.6: The Simplified Technical English specification wants to Use articles such as "a/an" and "the" wherever possible. That is, it wants to increase their usage - the exact opposite of what you are trying to say. Those who understand English and want to simplify it, actually want to increase the use of articles. –  TrevorD Jun 24 '13 at 22:23
    
+1 for so much research. –  TrevorD Jun 24 '13 at 22:23
    
@TrevorD thank you and very pleased you spotted "article" No.6 I thought that was extremely ironic, all things considered. –  Mari-Lou A Jun 24 '13 at 22:27
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wow, nice answer, so far the best one. –  Derfder Jun 25 '13 at 12:44
    
How would you pronounce SaypYu? // Note how Wells uses 'silent e'; I'm not sure that makes things easier for people not already fluent. // +1 Great answer to an .. odd question. –  hunter2 Jul 15 '13 at 6:08
  • No, there is no organized movement to eradicate articles in any variety of English
  • There is no unorganized trend of the loss of the article, except in very small communities, like 'headlinese', or English pidgins
  • Whether one uses an article is a complicated matter that is difficult for non-native speakers to master
  • There is no central authority for the English language to which one could appeal to have the existence of articles removed. Language rules change organically (Frankly the same is true of French which, even though it does have an ostensible body to arbitrate such rules, no one actually follows them except pedantic school teachers) .

So no, there are neither movements or tendencies for articles to fall away. No one speaks in headlines.

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ok, thanks for the answer. I have up-voted your answer. Btw. any reference when have the first headlines without articles occurred so I can extrapolate that and make a prediction to the dropping of articles in today's English? –  Derfder Jun 16 '13 at 19:16
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You mean the dropping of articles in English headlines? Articles are not being dropped in general English. I don't have any references, but you could surely do some research yourself and tell us the results. For accuracy's sake, there are all sorts of instances where English -doesn't use articles, where other languages do (e.g. the nonstandard Czechism 'The Donald' by Ivana Zelníčková Trump; no native speaker would ever use an article in front of a person's name, even though German does it 'Der Donald'). –  Mitch Jun 16 '13 at 19:29
    
'the nonstandard Czechism 'The Donald' by Ivana Zelníčková Trump` what is that? Czech doesn't use "The". –  Derfder Jun 16 '13 at 19:32
    
Re 'The Donald': oh, my mistake. I thought Czech used articles for names; it must be Ivana's language-learning mistake then. Ivana is famous for saying 'The Donald'. –  Mitch Jun 16 '13 at 19:38
    
There are lots of language trends, and with respect to articles some gain them, some lose them, but there is no current trend in general English. For 'headlinese' though, start your google search for that word or for telescopic English or roadsign English (I think there are other terms for langauge where lots of low function words are dropped). –  Mitch Jun 16 '13 at 19:42

I'm adding an entirely new answer, not merely a comment, because I feel this is important.

Derfder, you haven't said anything in almost a week at this point, and I suspect that might mean you feel the community is "ganging up" on you. If so, let me be presumptuous enough to speak for everyone (forgive me, friends, for taking license) in order to say that "ganging up" on you, or putting you down in any way, is absolutely not anyone's intention. We have strong opinions, and we often express them a bit too strongly, but we really only mean to comment on the opinion, not the person holding the opinion.

That having been said, let me explore two points. The first is very much in answer to your main question. The other is just beneath the surface.

The first point, in answer to your main question, is simply to emphasize the summary of what we see here. The consensus is that there is not and never has been a movement to remove articles from the English language, nor is there likely ever to be one.

The second point, the one beneath the surface, is more of an observation from me, and an encouragement to you. Much of what you have said seems to be an expression of frustration, a bafflement, even an annoyance with the English language. I think we would all agree that English is a baffling and difficult language, and one that is more than challenging to learn as a second language. I for one would be flummoxed if I had to learn it as an adult. But its complexities fascinate me. I find them amazing, intriguing, and beautiful. When I approach another language, I treat it with respect and admiration. I speak Spanish fluently, and I am always trying to learn to speak it better. I do this because language itself is a miracle. Each and every language we have created in order to bridge the gaps between us ennobles us, enriches us, enlightens us, inspires us, and quite simply makes our lives better and more livable, and gives us at the very least a HOPE of a true worldwide understanding between all people someday.

I struggle to learn French. It isn't easy, but I love the language. Its beauty is unsurpassed, in my humble opinion. And you are to be commended highly for having learned a substantial amount of the horribly difficult language known as English. Please carry on. Please try not to focus on what seems to be all the illogical nonsense in the language. Accept that it has its own logic.

Zen has a profound wisdom. What is... is. And what is... is good. That which exists has its own logic. Peace comes from acceptance. Wisdom comes from acceptance. Focus on learning the logic of what is. I don't criticize French for being the way it is. I just work harder at learning it. Try that with English, my good friend. It works. Believe me.

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This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. –  Vilmar Sep 8 at 7:59

I try to write it simple because my impression is the question came up because a basic understanding of how a language works is missing.

Every language has a linguistic system, its grammar. Most slavic languages base on declension, English bases on word order, prepositions and articles. German bases on both ones, but therefore is able to allow a variable word order. These are 3 different approaches for being able to express everything you want to tell. And yes, there are always some links between them like for example here.

If you dropped the existence of articles in English, you would have to replace it with another grammatical feature to fill the gap, maybe with introducing cases again. There has not been any triggering event for such very basic movement during the last 200 years, and likely there wont be one for the next centuries. It is the result of many hundreds years language history from Indo-European to today.

Here's some quoting from Wikipedia demonstrating the different approaches of expressing the same like with articles in Russian. You'll see, for getting an article-free language, you would need more additional grammar elements not availabe in English:

There are no definite or indefinite articles in the Russian language. The sense of a noun is determined from the context in which it appears. That said, there are some means of expressing whether a noun is definite or indefinite. They are:

  1. The use of a direct object in the genitive instead of the accusative in negation signifies that the noun is indefinite, compare: "Я не ви́жу кни́ги" ("I don't see a book" or "I don't see any book") and "Я не ви́жу кни́гу" ("I don't see the book").

  2. The use of the numeral one sometimes signifies that the noun is indefinite, e.g.: "Почему́ ты так до́лго?" - "Да так, встре́тил одного́ дру́га, пришло́сь поговори́ть" ("Why did it take you so long?" - "Well, I met a friend and had to talk").

  3. Word order may also be used for this purpose, compare "В ко́мнату вбежа́л ма́льчик" ("A boy rushed into the room") and "Ма́льчик вбежа́л в ко́мнату" ("The boy rushed into the room").

  4. The use of the plural form instead of the singular may signify that the noun is indefinite: "Вы ку́пите э́то в магази́нах." - "Вы ку́пите э́то в магази́не." ("You can buy this in a shop." lit. "...in shops" - "You can buy this in the shop.")

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A movement? No. A trend? In some places. I work in technology in the US. In this field, there are many workers from India, China, and other places where the native language has few or no articles. In those languages, the information we convey via articles is implied through context.

Part of what makes article usage in US English so hard to learn is that it's so wildly inconsistent. Here in New Jersey, I take [Interstate] 280 to get from 80 to 95. In California, however, I take the 280 to get from San Francisco to San Jose. The reason for the difference in this particular case is that in southern California, the "the" carried over from when the freeways only had names (e.g., the Ventura Freeway), but here (e.g., the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) it did not.

There are many, many cases like this, all of which you have to know by rote. After 30 years working in this multilingual environment where English is more likely a person's second or third language than their first, it would seem safer (from the standpoint of sounding strange) to err on the side of omission, rather than add articles when possibly not appropriate, e.g., "Let's invite the Ed to lunch." So no, it's not a movement--it's more of a workaround for one of English's tougher aspects.

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As an aside, in Britain, we always prefix road numbers by "the" when including them in sentences, e.g. the A29, the M6, the B2128"; but, conversely, we do not prefix road names by "the" (unless it is formally part of the road name), e.g. *Stane Street, Guildford Road, The Street, Hayes Lane. If, however, we were to say "the Guildford Road", then that means the road leading to Guildford (irrespective of the actual name of the road). –  TrevorD Jul 9 '13 at 15:42

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