Monday, April 12, 2010

Of ‘The’ I Sing

A regular customer of this blog, commendably eager for practical knowledge, has pointedly asked why it is that the British omit the definite article “the” before certain words, while Americans do not.  For example, if someone in London is helping a Harley Street surgeon pay for his yacht, that person is “in hospital”; but doing the same for a Park Avenue doctor in New York will put the American “in the hospital.”  Americans also speak of events occurring “in the future” while Brits tend to say “in future.”  Why is that?

The real question is why Americans are so inconsistent as to include “the” before words like “hospital” and “future,” and omit it before “school,” “church,” “court,” and other words of that kind. Well, as the Sage of Concord once confided to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, consistency is the “hobgoblin of little minds.”

Another Sage (of Baltimore), the curmudgeonly H. L. Mencken, suggests that the habit of using “the” before certain nouns came to the New World from the Irish, who picked it up from the French, who put la or le, and the Germans, who insist on der, die or das, before most nouns. Don’t ask why; that’s just the way it is.  In French, War and Peace is La guerre et la paix; likewise the German title of Karl Marx’s Capital is Das Kapital.  In his 1919 tome The American Language, Mencken says: “An Irishman does not say, ‘I am good at Latin,’ but ‘I am good at the Latin.’  In the same way an American does not say ‘I had measles’ but ‘I had the measles.’”

The British textbook High School Grammar and Composition by Wren and Martin (a couple of fine old English birds by the sound of it) states that the definite article should be avoided before words like church, school, hospital, college, university and bed (!), when these are referred to for their primary purpose.  Americans and British follow the same rule—mostly: We go to church, we go to school, and we go to bed—all without benefit of “the.”  The article “the” should be used, say the birds, when referring to the same nouns as objects, e.g. we contribute to the church, we build the school, we make the bed.

But the British themselves don’t always follow Wren and Martin’s rule.  Just to confuse things even more, both Yanks and Brits go to the theatre, the ballet, and the opera; but while Americans watch TV, the British watch the telly.

Bard of Buffalo Bayou, when not in a church, in a school, in a hospital, or on a toot, pens scraps of drivel, one of which follows:

            Hail to The, a useful article!
            From top to end, in every particle!
            Perhaps The’s greatest claim to fame
            Is that it is the middle name
            Of many folks in history’s pages.
            To name a few, down through the ages:
            Ivan The Terrible, Louis The Fat,
            Alfred The Great, Maggie The Cat,
            Minnie The Moocher, Edward The Confessor,
            Richard The Lionheart, Ajax The Lesser,
            John The Baptist, Jack The Ripper
            Billy The Kid, George The Gipper
            Kermit The Frog, Winnie The Pooh,
            William The Conqueror, Pepe Le Pew
            I could go on longer and name some more,
            But that’s quite enough from Bard The Bore.

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