Use of definite article shows ‘radical decline’ in last century, research shows

Academic’s analysis of American English usage shows striking fall, suggesting ‘trend towards greater informality in writing’

State of the Union Addres
 ‘The’ is the question … Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address. Photograph: REX

It might appear to be one of the more useful words in the English language, but according to research by a linguistics professor, use of the definite article “the” has declined “radically” over the last century.

Mark Liberman, Christopher H Browne distinguished professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, has analysed the frequency of “the” in US presidential State of the Union addresses, finding that the average frequency of “the” in addresses between 2004 and 2013 was 47,458 per million words. Yet in the first 10 addresses, which took place between 1790 and 1799, it was 93,201 per million words, “almost double the frequency”.

So, in 1790, George Washington opened: “I embrace with great satisfaction the opportunity which now presents itself of congratulating you on the present favourable prospects of our public affairs. The recent accession of the important state of North Carolina to the Constitution of the United States … the rising credit and respectability of our country, the general and increasing good will toward the government of the Union, and the concord, peace, and plenty with which we are blessed are circumstances auspicious in an eminent degree to our national prosperity.” Eleven “the”s, in his first 89 words.

Barack Obama, meanwhile, opened his 2014 address with just five “the”s in his first 90 words: “Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades. An entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than eight million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years. An autoworker fine-tuned some of the best, most fuel-efficient cars in the world, and did his part to help America wean itself off foreign oil.”

“During the course of the 20th century, the frequency of the English definite article the decreased gradually and radically,” Liberman writes in a piece on theLanguage Log website, which goes on to look at the frequency of the use of “a/an”, finding that while “the” decreased in State of the Union addresses in the 20th century, “a/an” increased by about a third.

Widening out his research to look at the 400-million-word Corpus of Historical American English and the Google Books N-Gram viewer over the same 100 years, he found that in the corpus, the changes were smaller, but “the” still decreased in frequency, this time “by about 22% in relative terms, from 6.6% to 5.4%, while a/an increases in frequency by about 14%, from 2.4% to 2.7%”, a change he described as “stylistically as well as statistically significant”.

Google Books showed that “‘the’ again falls by about 22% in relative terms, from 6.4% to 5.2%”, wrote Liberman, while his analysis of US presidents’ inaugural addresses, from 1897 to 2013, found that “‘the’ decreases in frequency by about 35% in relative terms, from about 8.0% to about 5.2%, while a/an increases by about 39%, from about 1.7% to about 2.3%”.

This does not, however, necessarily mean that the latter is replacing the former. “In all of the four data sources considered so far, ‘the’ consistently declines in frequency over the course of the 20th century, monotonically and by a relatively large proportion,” writes Liberman. “The behaviour of a/an is less consistent, and in any case the changes are not large enough to suggest a simple trading relation between definite and indefinite reference.”

Liberman speculates on his blog that one reason for the change could be “decreasing formality of style”, as writing becomes more like speech.

“I didn’t expect to see the effect in the first place;  and I’ve been surprised both by its magnitude and by the fact that it’s (so far) so consistent across sources,” he told the Guardian. “I haven’t been able to find any previous discussion of this trend, and the knowledgeable colleagues that I’ve asked don’t know of any, either.”

“I think that one part of the explanation is a long-term trend towards greater informality in writing,” Liberman told the Guardian by email. “But this is generally a self-renewing process, where speech styles gradually leak into writing, and meanwhile continue to develop so as to maintain a distance.”


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