Culture

The most powerful word in English

The most commonly-used word in English might only have three letters – but it packs a punch.

‘The’. It’s omnipresent; we can’t imagine English without it. But it’s not much to look at. It isn’t descriptive, evocative or inspiring. Technically, it’s meaningless. And yet this bland and innocuous-seeming word could be one of the most potent in the English language.

‘The’ tops the league tables of most frequently used words in English, accounting for 5% of every 100 words used. “‘The’ really is miles above everything else,” says Jonathan Culpeper, professor of linguistics at Lancaster University. But why is this? The answer is two-fold, according to the BBC Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth. George Zipf, a 20th-Century US linguist and philologist, expounded the principle of least effort. He predicted that short and simple words would be the most frequent – and he was right.

The second reason is that ‘the’ lies at the heart of English grammar, having a function rather than a meaning. Words are split into two categories: expressions with a semantic meaning and functional words like ‘the’, ‘to’, ‘for’, with a job to do. ‘The’ can function in multiple ways. This is typical, explains Gary Thoms, assistant professor in linguistics at New York University: “a super high-usage word will often develop a real flexibility”, with different subtle uses that make it hard to define. Helping us understand what is being referred to, ‘the’ makes sense of nouns as a subject or an object. So even someone with a rudimentary grasp of English can tell the difference between ‘I ate an apple’ and ‘I ate the apple’.

But although ‘the’ has no meaning in itself, “it seems to be able to do things in subtle and miraculous ways,” says Michael Rosen, poet and author. Consider the difference between ‘he scored a goal’ and ‘he scored the goal’. The inclusion of ‘the’ immediately signals something important about that goal. Perhaps it was the only one of the match? Or maybe it was the clincher that won the league? Context very often determines sense.

There are many exceptions regarding the use of the definite article, for example in relation to proper nouns. We wouldn’t expect someone to say ‘the Jonathan’ but it’s not incorrect to say ‘you’re not the Jonathan I thought you were’. And a football commentator might deliberately create a generic vibe by saying, ‘you’ve got the Lampards in midfield’ to mean players like Lampard.

The use of ‘the’ could have increased as trade and manufacture grew in the run-up to the industrial revolution, when we needed to be referential about things and processes. ‘The’ helped distinguish clearly and could act as a quantifier, for example, ‘the slab of butter’.

This could lead to a belief that ‘the’ is a workhorse of English; functional but boring. Yet Rosen rejects that view. While primary school children are taught to use ‘wow’ words, choosing ‘exclaimed’ rather than ‘said’, he doesn’t think any word has more or less ‘wow’ factor than any other; it all depends on how it’s used. “Power in language comes from context… ‘the’ can be a wow word,” he says.

This simplest of words can be used for dramatic effect. At the start of Hamlet, a guard’s utterance of ‘Long live the King’ is soon followed by the apparition of the ghost: ‘Looks it not like the King?’ Who, the audience wonders, does ‘the’ refer to? The living King or a dead King? This kind of ambiguity is the kind of ‘hook’ that writers use to make us quizzical, a bit uneasy even. “‘The’ is doing a lot of work here,” says Rosen.

Deeper meaning

‘The’ can even have philosophical implications. The Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong said a denoting phrase like ‘the round square’ introduced that object; there was now such a thing. According to Meinong, the word itself created non-existent objects, arguing that there are objects that exist and ones that don’t – but they are all created by language. “‘The’ has a kind of magical property in philosophy,” says Barry C Smith, director of the Institute of Philosophy, University of London.

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a paper in 1905 called On Denoting, all about the definite article. Russell put forward a theory of definite descriptions. He thought it intolerable that phrases like ‘the man in the Moon’ were used as though they actually existed. He wanted to revise the surface grammar of English, as it was misleading and “not a good guide to the logic of the language”, explains Smith. This topic has been argued about, in a philosophical context, ever since. “Despite the simplicity of the word,” observes Thoms, “it’s been evading definition in a very precise way for a long time.”

Lynne Murphy, professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex, spoke at the Boring Conference in 2019, an event celebrating topics that are mundane, ordinary and overlooked, but are revealed to be fascinating. She pointed out how strange it is that our most c