I've been digging through our English language, as I am studying predicate logic. I won't go into what that is, accept for that it involves the use of variables (much like maths) which represents three types of words:

  1. The time of an event or an object's existence
  2. The Geographical location of an event or object
  3. Either an event or object in and of itself, or a property of it.

For e.g

The e starts at t, at p.

Note that the word 'starts' could also be replaced a variable denoting time, as it relates to the time of an event i.e the event would not start at some time t if it finishes at time t. Strictly speaking, 'finishes' isn't the only other value, an event for e.g may reach it's 1st quadrant at time t, but I digress.

Anyway, it seems that some words are literally irreplaceable, in that they seem to be universal, and constant. Yet, I can't put my finger on what 'the' even means, I just use it subconsciously. Is it even needed? What would be the semantic difference between 'The play starts at 10:00pm at Rosedale' and 'Play starts 10:00pm Rosedale'?

On a side note, some people today would even say 'The play starts at 10:00pm, Rosedale', note the short pause between '10:00pm', and 'Rosedale'.

3 Answers 3


Words like 'the', 'a', and 'of' are often called syncategorematic words, words "that do not stand by themselves... (i.e. prepositions, logical connectives, etc.)" (here).

Examples of syncategorematic terms include:

  • articles (for example, 'the' and 'a')
  • connectives (for example, 'and' and 'or')
  • prepositions (for exmaple, 'in' and 'at')
  • quantifiers (for example, 'some' and 'all')

These contrast with categorematic words, "words that designate self-sufficient entities (i.e. nouns or adjectives)" (here).

Merriam-Webster defines categorematic as "capable of standing alone as the subject or predicate of a logical proposition : expressing a complete substantive meaning" (here).

Categorematic words include names (for example, 'John') and predicates (for example, 'tiger' and 'smokes').

You're correct in pointing out that syncategorematic words seem constant in some sense. That's why logicians and semanticists studying them call them logical constants. Their meanings do not vary from interpretation to interpretation (unlike names and predicates) (see here).

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was one of the first scholars to think about the meaning of the English definite article 'the'. He said that 'the' works like an existential quantifier, but with uniqueness. On his view, a sentence like 'the F is G' means:

  • There is a unique F and it's G.

If you think about a sentence like 'The president of the US smokes', you can paraphrase it as 'There is a unique president of the US and he smokes'. Russell thought that this was the meaning of 'the': to express unique existence.

Similarly, he thought that the indefinite article 'a/an' had the same meaning as an existential quantifier. Thus, a sentence like 'A dog barked' means 'There is a dog and it barked'. The meaning of 'a/an' is to express existence.

Both of Russell's claims are quite controversial among logicians and semanticists concerned with natural language. They have spawned a century of literature. But that should get you thinking.

By the way, there is a semantic difference between your two "sentences":

  • The play starts at 10:00pm at Rosedale
  • Play starts 10:00pm Rosedale

As a matter of semantics, only well-formed or grammatical sentences express something. The second sentence is not well-formed and thus has no semantic content. Somebody who heard this "sentence" would be able to pragmatically interpret it, but this would likely involve their restoring the omitted 'the' and 'at', i.e. converting it to the first sentence. If you're wondering why English makes use of articles and prepositions when other languages get by without them, well, that's a different question entirely.

  • I wouldn't presume to question the bulk of your answer, but can Bertrand Russell really have been first? I've read that Roman grammarians commented on Greek's definite article versus Latin's lack of one. May 31, 2016 at 15:33
  • 1
    @David Garner, good point. I'll change it to read "the English definite article" and qualify with "one of the first (and certainly the most famous)".
    – DyingIsFun
    May 31, 2016 at 15:35
  • Sounds good to me. May 31, 2016 at 15:36
  • @Silenus Wow, thank you so much for your comprehensive answer, it's very much appreciated. I find it extremely intriguing that other languages do not use such words, I wonder if this changes the way they see the world somehow. Anyway, thanks again ^.^ May 31, 2016 at 19:44

You've got a lot of questions going on here, which is bad form: stick to one question per post, and make it clear. Avoid rambling.

To address this specific question:

What would be the semantic difference between 'The play starts at 10:00pm at Rosedale' and 'Play starts 10:00pm Rosedale'?

In the first, "the play" is a noun phrase and would be interpreted as a theatrical performance.

In the second, "play" sounds like the verb "to play", eg what children do in the park.

This should illustrate that your idea, that the definite article "the" is completely redundant in the English language, is incorrect.


The and a/an are called Articles. They are sometimes hard to define because we use them so often without thinking about what they mean! But an article is simply a word that is used to describe what kind of noun is being described.

It can be a definite (specific) noun "Throw the ball, the one in your hand." or an indefinite (non-specific) noun "Throw a ball, any ball will do."

Of is not an article, it's a preposition, like under, about, in, etc. To put very simply, prepositions usually describe nouns in relation to something else. For example: "The mother of my child."

  • Ahh, so there are groups for such words, I had a feeling they would be somewhat grouped as 'miscellaneous', there's so much I don't know xD Thanks for the knowledge :) May 31, 2016 at 13:06

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