Measuring the frequency of words in almost every English book or document (which is long enough) ends up ranking the word 'the' as the most used word. Is there any solid function the word 'the' plays in context of a sentence other than making the sentence "sound right"?

For example, let me strip-out the word 'the' from this question's title and the above paragraph:

Is word 'the' unnecessary in English language?

Measuring frequency of words in almost every English book or document (which is long enough) ends up ranking word 'the' as most used word. Is there any solid function word 'the' plays in context of a sentence other than making sentence "sound right"?

I believe, greater the frequency of a word used across all the books and documents in a language, lesser will be its requirement in determining the context of the subject being spoken. There is no specific example I could point out, in which the word 'the' actually plays a vital role in describing anything. So, why isn't this word removed from the English language? I'm asking this question because, I'm not able to understand the requirement of the word 'the' in sentences. Removing the word 'the' almost always never tends to change the meaning of the sentences.

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    And then you use the word "the" 20 times in your question. – Klyzx Jun 17 '18 at 21:30
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    Note the difference between 'This question is most senseless' and 'This question is the most senseless'. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 17 '18 at 22:17
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    Please include the research you’ve done. Collins Cobuild have a 100+ page monograph on articles (and it's not comprehensive). Assuming about 60 pages on the definite article, which usages do you consider unnecessary? Do any remain? – Edwin Ashworth Jun 17 '18 at 22:19
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    Grabs popcorn. The amount of respectable users in this comment section who can't imagine life without articles is hilarious. Hey news flash! Most languages don't have them. At the same time they do have other crucial features like 70 different consonant sounds, or 15 cases, or three grammatical numbers, or genders for all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and even verbs. All features that English is sorely lacking. And some of which it did used to have, but then actually got rid of. They all conveyed additional information. And they all got removed. Your argument is invalid. Grabs more popcorn. – RegDwigнt Jun 17 '18 at 22:27
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    This is a good question that warrants a solid answer. Yes, it sounds incredibly stupid to absolutely any native speaker. And that is precisely what makes it interesting to any linguist. Upvoted, favorited, and will reopen if it gets closed. This kind of questions is exactly what this site is about. – RegDwigнt Jun 17 '18 at 22:32

Articles including "the" are necessary in English, not only because they are integral to the syntax and grammar that form the structure of the language, but also because they convey some important elements of meaning that are currently communicated briefly and efficiently through the use of articles.

I am Indian just like you, and I can see where your question comes from. We Indians are used to understanding English without giving much importance to articles, not least because many Indians (not you and I) don't use them properly, and we learned to do without.

[Members please note: this Q is therefore not trivial or a duplicate but an outcome of how non-native speakers perceive the structure of the English language relative to its applied function.]

For many non-native English speakers like Chinese and Indians, the only function of the English language is often to convey some sort of literal meaning in communication:

I not going school today.

Father asked me go to bank and pay bill.

This is rudimentary English spoken/written without basic expertise, but we can infer the correct meaning most of the time, even if someone did not include the article a/ an/ the. However, articles serve some important functions to convey precise meanings that don't need to be guessed at:

Definite Article: the

The definite article is used before singular and plural nouns when the noun is specific or particular. "The" signals that the noun is definite, that it refers to a particular member of a group. For example:

"The dog that bit me ran away." Here, we're talking about a specific dog, the dog that bit me (...)

"I saw the elephant at the zoo." Here, we're talking about a specific noun. Probably there is only one elephant at the zoo.

Source: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/540/01/

Grammaticality is often the main consideration. To write the same sentences as "dog that bit me ran away" and "I saw elephant at zoo" would be considered ungrammatical and a sign of underdeveloped English skills, even if a competent English user did it thinking the article superfluous. That's because articles are part and parcel of the language, and expected in both speech and writing.

However, the definite article does convey special and important meaning when it picks a particular noun out of a group of similar nouns, or creates a sense of "the most fitting"/ "the absolute" which meaning would be lost by omitting "the": as in

Spain is the team to beat at this World Cup (the best of all teams)

Mahatmaji was the personification of human virtues (the absolute exemplar, among all people)

Kim is the man for the job (just the right man for the job!)

Maybe the meaning is clear in most cases without the use of "the." That doesn't mean that articles including "the" can be omitted without disrupting the formal structure of a language that has articles. Even the informal spoken form is influenced by this structure. This is the form the language has evolved into over centuries.

All languages including French, Spanish, Hindi and Tamil have such words that look unnecessary from outside but are integral to the syntax and grammar when looked at "from inside." Articles like "the" are essential in English -- not necessarily to convey meaning (although the meaning they convey is often significant), but for being grammatical, and to preserve the structural integrity of the language. Rather more importantly it defines the language. To make this point more effectively I quote here Dan Bron's comment under the question:

It’s not that it’s impossible not to have them, of course, it’s that they’re “not useless” but more importantly “not English” without them. You’d be talking about some other language. Sure, we can imagine English without articles. And also without written vowels. And also without affixes, or as agglutinative, or whatever, but then you’re talking about another language, which will make it easier to talk about some things and harder to talk about others. It’s the Sorties paradox. Articles convey meaning and provide function in English, and no, you can’t have English without them.


No, "the" isn't unnecessary in the English language. It has an important role as a familiar component of the English language, of course, but it is also important functionally.

For example, there is a spectrum between most indefinite and most definite. That is, you might talk about something without caring about the specific instance (e.g. he ate an egg - it doesn't matter which egg), or you might care about which specific instance you're talking about (e.g. he ate the egg - that particular one).

In particular, 'the' helps to differentiate between referencing a specific instance and the essence of that specific instance. Here's an example:

  • "He is a king" - he is one king out of an unspecified number.
  • "He is the king" - he is a particular king.
  • "He is (null article) king" - he embodies the essence of kingship.

Compare the last two by considering this sentence: "He may be the king but he isn't king". This expresses that although he may have the title of 'king', he doesn't have something of the essence of one. It might be used to describe a pretender to the throne who manages to be crowned, but who doesn't hold the loyalty of his (supposed) subjects. The definite article is instrumental in teasing out this nuance.

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    @Sreram It's the other way around: the king would refer to the title whereas the null-articled king would refer to a personal quality. – Lawrence Jun 18 '18 at 12:48
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    Hm, a couple of down-votes. I wonder what the voters deem to be problematic with this answer. – Lawrence Jun 18 '18 at 18:11
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    Hi Lawrence, don't worry, I removed on long, well-thought out answer due to hounding. You are the only one who has suggested the context in which (the, a,null set) and suggest semantic weight. Bravol. – Lambie Jun 18 '18 at 21:52
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    What makes this such a polarizing Q & A @ Lawrence? You got +4/-2 votes already. My answer got +7/-5 and OP's Q got +8/-6 so the net score of all three of us is still on 2! That's somewhat unusual here, I think. The Q also got closed and reopened but all credit goes to OP @Sreram for asking a well developed and thought-provoking question which re-sparked my interest in ELU. I like your answer as well! – English Student Jun 19 '18 at 1:56
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    @EnglishStudent Quite right - the scores and closure/reopening in short order did give EL&U a bit more excitement than usual :) . I think it's the questioning of fundamentals that brings it out. Take Maths as a simpler analogy. We can build things up from the '4 basic operations'. These can go down further to just "+". Going beyond that brings you into the realm of computability and the Church-Rosser theorems etc. The simplest things are the hardest to explain ... because explanations typically require breaking things down, and 'because it sounds right' isn't a satisfying answer. – Lawrence Jun 19 '18 at 5:22

It all depends on what you mean by 'necessary'.

If you mean to make things follow English grammar the answer is a definitive 'yes'. The grammar demands it. Dropping it is what foreigners who don't have articles in their native language do mistakenly. But it's obvious you knew that.

So let's suppose, counter to reality, that we don't care about grammar, or that English grammar allows dropping articles.

If you mean to communicate the idea of a previously mentioned item, also yes, it is very necessary, if you intentionally want to point out this previous mention. Intentional, deliberate meaning is necessary. If you need for it to be explicit, then it is necessary.

If the context helps to disambiguate that it is a new thing or a previously mentioned thing, then maybe it's not necessary. In, "I ate cookie; cookie made me sick", it would be perverse for the second instance to refer to anything other than the first instance of 'cookie'.

Now if what you're really asking is whether a definite ness (the need for a definite article) is necessary in all languages, then that is a no. Many languages do not have a need for an obligatory article. (most European languages need an article; Russian is a big exception). And if you need to point out a new thing vs an old thing, use 'one' or 'this' respectively ('I ate one cookie; this cookie made me sick').

As to your expected phenomenon, I don't want you to go away thinking that we don't see what you see. I have to agree with you that you could eliminate almost all articles and you'd still understand what the author intended.

But as to your essential question, why isn't 'the' just removed from the English language, languages just don't work like that. No authority says what's in a human language; it's all by common usage.

Maybe you mean why do people bother to continue using it since it wastes so much energy. Again appealing to human language, it's not a uniform coding device. Word frequencies almost always follow some kind of Zipf curve. Get rid of one and the language will recalibrate, pushing some around. There will always be a highest frequency word. Also, because of expectations of English, just the slot to fill, that's enough to need it. It's sometimes a very useful semantic notion, to differentiate between a new thing and a previously mentioned thing. No big deal to always mention it. You always can. You can always do this in Russian; of course you'd sound weird for always insisting on specifying which noun you are referring to, but it won't be ungrammatical.

This all seems so negative, not the direction you were hoping for. Sure, if we were designing a whole new language, we probably wouldn't make articles obligatory, just like we probably wouldn't gender all our nouns or have inflections for case or agreement or any similar redundancies. But since definiteness is expected by speakers of English, articles to sign this are necessary.

So in the end, the answer 'No, you can't remove it because that's not grammatical English' is legitimate. And the answer to a reworded question is 'Yes, a differentiation between a definite or indefinite noun is only optional if you look at all languages'.

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