When I look at the definition given from the Mac OS X Dictionary (I have set American English as interface language, and the dictionary used is then the New Oxford American Dictionary), I read:

the /ði/ /ð(ə)/ /ði/ [called the definite article]
1. denoting one or more people or things already mentioned or assumed to be common knowledge: what's the matter? | call the doctor | the phone rang. Compare with a.
• used to refer to a person, place, or thing that is unique: the Queen | the Mona Lisa | the Nile.
• informal denoting a disease or affliction: I've got the flu.
• (with a unit of time) the present; the current: dish of the day | man of the moment.
• informal used instead of a possessive to refer to someone with whom the speaker or person addressed is associated: I'm meeting the boss | how's the family?
• used with a surname to refer to a family or married couple: the Johnsons were not wealthy.
• used before the surname of the chief of a Scottish or Irish clan: the O'Donoghue.

I have never thought of an article as adjective.
Is normally an article defined as adjective?


That is so wrong it makes my eyeballs bleed. Let's consider some syntactic tests, shall we?

Adjectives can be compared with -er and -est (or more and most):

A bigger house
The biggest house
! More the house
! Most the house

Adjectives can be placed in a predicate:

The house is big.
! House is the.

Adjectives can be coordinated with and:

Red and green house
! The and green house

Conclusion: the is not an adjective. The fact that it modifies a noun does not make it an adjective, because it has none of the grammatical or morphological properties of adjectives.

  • Great points. I guess "the" is merely a modifier? – Chris Dwyer Aug 14 '10 at 19:43
  • 10
    The and a(n) are usually called "articles" or "determiners". They're in a category of their own because there are no other words in English that have the same semantic and syntactic function. – JSBձոգչ Aug 14 '10 at 22:05
  • 1
    To complete the information, also "a" is reported from the New Oxford American Dictionary as adjective. – kiamlaluno Aug 14 '10 at 22:46
  • 1
    Looking at the definition given from the NOAD for determiner, I read the following description: "[Grammar] a modifying word that determines the kind of reference a noun or noun group has, for example a, the, every. See also definite article, indefinite article.". – kiamlaluno Aug 15 '10 at 3:40
  • 2
    @Vincent, the is not modifying wiser in your example sentence. It is rather the determiner for an implicit noun, i.e. "the wiser [one]." There is a productive pattern in English where the heads of noun phrases in predicates can be dropped, especially in conjunction with a comparative adjective: "Of the girls, Sue was the prettier." "We were the poorer for it." In none of these cases is the acting as an adverb; in every case it's a determiner for an implicit noun. – JSBձոգչ Aug 15 '10 at 22:45

There might be a context where the definite article 'the' is used as an adjective. as in " not just any lawyer, the lawyer. This is to emphasize the illustrious nature of the person under consideration. I have seen it being used with proper nouns as well in the same context.

  • An interesting example indeed. – Vincent McNabb Aug 15 '10 at 5:58
  • 1
    This is still a determiner usage. It has adjectival qualities too, as you say. Compare the post-modifier 'galore', which has determiner (quantifier: a vast number of) and adjectival (a splendid, gay array: try funerals galore) properties. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 4 '14 at 20:55

As JSBangs showed, the fails some tests for being an adjective. However, there are other words that we commonly call adjectives even though they fail some of the tests. Consider these examples:

  • the more all houses / the aller houses
  • this house is only but not blue
  • the each and red house

If we describe an adjective simply as anything that modifies a noun or noun phrase, it doesn't seem too unreasonable to call the an adjective too, just as all, only, and each.

However, traditionally we call the an article, not an adjective. Perhaps a compromise could be reached: the is an article, and articles are special kinds of adjectives; and because we have this special, more specific label, we should normally not call them by the more general label "adjective". The same applies to possessive and demonstrative pronouns. On a side note, we could also call the a kind of pronoun. That wouldn't entirely unreasonable: it is just not done. If the need should arise, we could then call it a referential or anaphoric word, instead of a pronoun.

In the end it seems an arbitrary choice. Some neo-linguists have a tendency of doing all they can to destroy traditional labels whenever they can find the slightest excuse, even when the old label still functions moderately well. This usually involves a rabid and sometimes crude implementation of functionalism, choosing a particular interpretation of how a word functions as a basis for terminology and disregarding any more nuanced views. I say that this should only be done where it is necessary to prove a point, which indeed it can be in some research.

In our case, it would make more sense to call the, a, your, and red something like "nominal modifiers" if such an overarching name should be necessary in a linguistic treatise. Calling them all "adjectives" looks more like an attempt at rebellion that confuses readers than a functional improvement.

  • The part about all is an interesting point. – kiamlaluno Jan 30 '11 at 15:49
  • 1
    All, each, etc. are not considered adjectives by linguists. They are known as quantifiers, which fall under the greater category of determiner. Definite and indefinite articles are also determiners. "The only" is considered a uniquitive determiner as well. So you are right in your observations — it's just these are also not considered adjectives. – Kosmonaut Apr 12 '11 at 21:53
  • @Kosmonaut: Okay, I have no problems in principle with that terminology; it may very well be the most efficient model in many cases. However, I don't think the other terminology is entirely useless either. For one thing it is used by many in several different disciplines. I just feel that anyone choosing one accepted set of labels over another should not claim that his is the Right one and the other the Wrong one (not saying you were doing that). I was trying to show the relativity of a particular set of labels and their tests. – Cerberus Apr 12 '11 at 22:11
  • 1
    In my opinion, the important question is: if we group X, Y, and Z together, do we make accurate predictions? If we put any of those determiners and adjectives into the same category, we end up with many inaccurate predictions. So, basically I think that "the", "some", "that", etc. have a lot in common with each other and therefore belong together, as a reflection of their similarities. Anyway, I am not sure how you can categorize the syntactic category of a word without looking at how it functions in sentences. What else would you go by? – Kosmonaut Apr 12 '11 at 22:57

It's an adjective in the sense that it modifies the meaning of the noun it applies to.

"The pencil" refers to a particular pencil.

"A pencil" refers to any pencil.

  • 1
    Which is roughly the point I was going to make: if you have a meagre classification of words (or anything else, for that matter) you need to shoe-horn everything into one of your classes even if they don't fit. This often happens when people ask "Which [traditional part of speech] is "[word]", and the only coherent (though disallowed) answer is "none of them". I've never come across a classification of parts of speech which would lump articles into "adjective", but I can certainly conceive of one. – Colin Fine Jan 31 '11 at 17:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.