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I am not sure whether the best form when speaking of my spouse in everyday English is the wife or my wife.

I commonly read the wife (or the girlfriend) in reference to the author's significant other, so it appears to be idiomatic at least in American English. However, the women are not part of the group addressed, and I don't know how they would react to it.

Is the wife impolite or even derogatory? If not, which form is better?

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Yes, saying "the wife" instead of "my wife" is slangy, and very slightly derogatory. There are contexts in which it might be acceptable, but I would strongly recommend that you avoid it, particularly if you are not a native speaker of English. –  user16269 Aug 11 '12 at 11:19
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Ask your wife what she'd prefer ^^ –  Leif Aug 12 '12 at 1:00
    
Actually, I am surprised no militant feminists have shown up extolling the use of the wife as proper, by virtue of not presuming ownership. I see them as virtually interchangeable phrasings. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 2 '13 at 1:30

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

It's contextual. At first read, I'd say that the term could indeed be considered impolite. Depending on how it's uttered, that impoliteness could range anywhere between playfully impersonal to callously derogatory.

Generally speaking, I believe my wife would prefer that I call her "my wife," as opposed to "the wife," especially in a context like:

He: Can you go to the baseball game with me on Friday?
Me: I don't know; I'll have to ask the wife about that.

However, there are instances where the words could be used in an almost complimentary fashion:

He: That was a smart investment you made!
Me: Well, I pretty much always listen to the wife about those kinds of things; she's pretty smart about that.

So, it very much depends on how you use the term. In written communication, I'd say that "my wife" is the safer phrasing, because "the wife" could easily be construed as insensitve, even if you didn't mean it that way.

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Both are right, but in the context I think you mean, My wife is almost always preferred. My wife, his wife, (heteronormativity off) her wife, your wife, etc. is the standard use when you want to say something about your wife. This holds for many nouns, not just wife.

In other situations "the wife" would be totally normal such as 'The wife of a dead man is called a widow.'

However, you are very right that the wife can be idiomatic; it has a very specific meaning with a specific connotation. It is not impolite or derogatory although it could be used in a negative sense.

The wife alludes to the generic idea of a wife rather than a specific person. It's a good phrase to use if what you are trying to say might apply to wives in general rather than just your wife or the wife of someone present. For example, 'If you're coming to my party, you can bring along the wife.' or 'I don't think the girlfriend will let me get away with that.' This phrase is very specific to a few select phrases such as wife and girlfriend and wouldn't be used with most other nouns.

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I think this is very close; I'd say that, although not necessarily 'impolite or derogatory', 'the wife' (or husband, girlfriend, &c) is always depersonalizing: it reduces the person to as you say a 'generic idea', a role, a stereotype. So there's always something faintly offensive about it; it can be used jocularly, but only with great care. –  StoneyB Aug 11 '12 at 10:03
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+ 1 for "heteronormativity off". –  Dave M G Aug 11 '12 at 11:51
    
Is it really derogatory? To me it just seems like an example of the definite article being used when the thing or person is known or implied. As an aside, many languages that do not have articles would be happy with 'I'll have a word with wife'; no article, no possessive pronoun. –  Barry Brown Aug 15 '12 at 8:00

It may express annoyance with the wife. I found the SAME poster use "my wife" and "the wife" in different posts in an audio forum today, as in "the treadmill is used mostly by my wife",(later) "my wife has real issues with infinite-baffle installations" and (in the third post) "the wife saw my design and she thinks it's too big." Hope this answers your question.

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