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Thursday, 23 February 2012

Whether and When to Use The Definite Article?


The problem of 'the' is ever with us. The definite article, as opposed to the indefinite 'a' and 'an', tends to place a claim of specificity on the attached noun, rendering it a special item. So, 'an oak tree' is an entirely different proposition from 'the oak tree'. The former is just one member of the forest, without distinction and lacking the importance of that definite article. The latter, of course, is elevated into a position of superiority by its adjective, which identifies it as not just one of the crowd, but a particular tree. It may be that this specimen has some dubious history, perhaps once employed to suspend the bodies, if not the disbelief, of those who were hanged from one of its lower boughs. Or, it may bear the initials of passion-consumed lovers now long dead but in their time renowned for their displays of alfresco affection. Maybe it was the location chosen by furtive agents who secreted their folded and encrypted messages within that famous knot hole only five feet from the ground and thus almost brought the State to a state of collapse.

You get the drift.

The 'the' can, and often does, convey an idea of importance on the subject it describes.
But, what of those occasions when writers use it to describe the ordinary? 'Jonathan walked the length of the lake shore, skimming the flat stones over its surface.' Here we have a sentence with three instances of 'the' in just 15 words: 20% of the sentence consists of the definite article! Can we improve it without altering the sense?

'Jonathan walked the length of the lake shore, skimming flat stones over its surface.' Because, in this case, the 'the' is immaterial with regard to the stones, we can exclude it without detriment to the sentence and, thereby, improve pace. The other two 'the's, however, are necessary to the sentence in its current construction, as, without them, it wouldn't make sense.

'Jonathan skimmed stones over the lake surface, as he walked its (entire) shore.' Reduced wordage, cutting the definite article to one example, but saying the same thing. Whether it's a better sentence, I leave to your judgement.

Let's try another:

'The weary traveller wandered lost in the forest, surrounded by the trees; the leaves cutting out the light of the sun and making the experience frightening.'

This is a terrible sentence. Oh, it says everything the writer intended. But the pace is poor and there are far too many words, especially definite articles. Let's try to improve it.

'The weary traveller wandered lost in the forest, surrounded by trees; leaves cutting out sunlight and making the experience frightening.'

Better: the pace is better after removal of the unnecessary definite articles, but the sentence still lacks sparkle. It tells the reader what is happening, but fails to show it.

'Lost amongst endless trees, Aglydron trembled and longed for rest and an end to his difficult journey.'
I'm not suggesting this is by any means perfect. But, I think you'll agree it's an improvement. We've lost the subject's anonymity by naming him (he's a character from the epic fantasy I'm writing at present) and, in so doing, removed another 'the'. We've shown the reader how he feels, instead of telling him, giving the whole a greater emotional depth. And we've reduced the original 26 word sentence to 17 words, thereby increasing pace. The final sentence retains not a single definite article, but the original contained no fewer than seven 'the's.

Okay, you're turn next. Here's an excruciating sentence for you to work on and improve. Let me have your suggestions, if you wish, along with your comments.

'The sexy woman walked across the sand of the beach, conscious of the eyes of the men following the progress she made, as the bikini barely concealed the parts of the lovely body she moved quickly toward the sea, so the waves would hide the shyness she felt.'

Another silly question for you to ponder: Why, oh why, do we always press harder and harder on a remote control when we know the batteries are dying?


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