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

the /ði/ /ð(ə)/ /ði/ [called the definite article] adjective

  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?

  • Well, I find a couple of reputable site that allow "the" to be an adverb.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 25 at 15:55
  • Do you have a link for those sites? I am curious to see what they say. :)
    – apaderno
    Aug 25 at 16:34
  • Googledefine the
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 25 at 16:35
  • There is even a phrase where it's said to be a preposition: a dollar the dozen.
    – apaderno
    Aug 25 at 17:16
  • I have never thought of an article as adjective. A lot of people do not consider the function of "the". Historically, it is related to "that" which is often described as a demonstrative adjective. "The" adds to its noun the basic meaning of "which has been previously, or will be, described/defined, or is known to the listener." -- Determiners are, broadly, a sub-category of adjectives or noun-phrase modifiers.
    – Greybeard
    Aug 25 at 17:52

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.

  • 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. Aug 14 '10 at 22:05
  • 1
    To complete the information, also "a" is reported from the New Oxford American Dictionary as adjective.
    – apaderno
    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.".
    – apaderno
    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. Aug 15 '10 at 22:45
  • 1
    @JSBangs: I agree that it isn't terribly useful to call articles adjectives. // The harder they beat her, the more she hated them. Isn't the an adverbial modifier here? It would be hard to supply a noun. Many other IE languages also use pronouns or articles (the line between article and pronoun is often blurred) to indicate the degree to which one thing is greater than the other with comparatives. Apr 12 '11 at 21:15

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. Aug 15 '10 at 5:58
  • 2
    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. 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.
    – apaderno
    Jan 30 '11 at 15:49
  • 2
    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. Apr 12 '11 at 22:11
  • 2
    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

If all you had were the classic eight parts of speech that were used in classical Latin, noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, interjection, and you had to put 'the' in one of those bins, then the only one it could possibly fit in is 'adjective', and would definitely not fit in any other. Which is to say that 'the' acts more like an adjective than anything else.

But English is not Latin, and while there are some similarities, the grammar is fairly different. English is mostly analytic (strict word order, lots of helper words), a usually strict sentence order Subject-Verb-Object and has little grammatical agreement (just number), while Latin is inflectional (lots of sound changes with word endings), a lax sentence order that is usually Subject-Object-Verb and lots of agreement (number, grammatical gender, person, noun and verb categories).

Which mean we should analyze English on its own terms. What should be done at this point is an exhaustive comparison of 'the' and other adjectives and determiners. CGEL (via wikipedia) gives some of that. While one can be strict and say that determiners are outside the set of adjectives, one must agree that determiners are more like adjectives than other non-adjective categories.

In the end, 'the' is like an adjective but has little special rules that differentiate it from the great majority of adjectives.

So NOAD is not wrong exactly, but it'd be more accurate and modern to call it a determiner or even better an article.


  • I have to give my usual rant about dictionaries. Despite the erudition and scholarship and labor behind compiling a dictionary, the information they provide is not enough to recreate a language. They're not intended to be good at syntax, which through parts of speech provide non-trivial meaning to a word. We often want to think of a dictionary as an authority, to tell us things that are correct, and they do that, but they don't tell us everything. They're usually not wrong, but they aren't complete reconstructions in print.
  • If I had seen that definition (the specified as an adjective, it probably wouldn't have bothered me, thinking it's their editorial choice to lump things rather than split. But if a dictionary would go so far as to consider 'determiner' they should then be more accurate (it's not hard to do) and just use 'article'. If you're a splitter then 'the' is an article. If you're a lumper (yes it's the same link), then it is an adjective with some very special properties.
  • Is a penguin a bird? It doesn't fly, it swims, and is pretty hefty. But it shares a lot more attributes with birds than any other animal. Superficial similarities and differences do not determine the essence. Of course if all you care about is ability to fly, the a penguin is not it.
  • Is 'my' a pronoun or an adjective? It has properties of both (it refers to the variable of the speaker) but it also modifies a noun. Why can't it be both?
  • I wanted to ask the OP but then changed my mind because... so, here's my question to you. Eleven years later, does the NOAD still classify "the" as an adjective? Because if it still does, then a link would be great especially for those who have free access to NOAD, but if it doesn't, it makes the question a bit moot, doesn't it?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 25 at 13:42
  • This is the result I get from Google, and "the" is classified as and only as a determiner. google.com/…
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 25 at 13:50
  • @Mari-LouA M-W dictionary.com thefreedictionary wordnik definite article. Collins Cambridge determiner.
    – Mitch
    Aug 25 at 14:11
  • @Mari-LouA My local library doesn't have online access to OED any more so I can't check there. Are there any other on-line dictionaries to check?
    – Mitch
    Aug 25 at 14:16
  • The first link is the same transcription as the one reported by the OP, almost word for word. Open the "more definitions" window. It would seem that the editor has since changed their mind.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 27 at 7:54

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

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