Nav: Home

The political power of 'the': A linguistic analysis

March 04, 2019

(Washington, DC) - A new study of the English definite article "the" demonstrates that even seemingly drab function words can send powerful social and political signals. The study "Pragmatics and the social life of the English definite article," by Eric Acton (Eastern Michigan University) will be published in the March, 2019 issue of the scholarly journal Language. A pre-print version of the article may be found here: [pdf].

The author shows that using the with a plural noun to talk about a group of individuals (as in "the Americans") tends to depict that group as separate or distant from the speaker--an effect that is far less pronounced without the definite article (as in "Americans"). One can see the contrast by comparing the sentences "Americans love football" and "The Americans love football": the second, unlike the first, strongly suggests that the speaker of the sentence is not an American. In some cases, the distancing effect of the-plurals is so strong as to sound distinctly derogatory, as in expressions like "the Jews" or "the blacks".

This effect has powerful consequences in political speech. Analyzing 20 years of speeches delivered in the U.S. House of Representatives, the author finds that, on average, representatives from both parties use "the" (as in "the Republicans") rather than a bare plural (as in "Republicans") more than 1.75 times as often in naming their opposing party than in naming their own. For instance, whereas Democrats use "the" 54.4% of the time in referring to Republicans as a group, they do so 30.4% in referring to Democrats. For Republicans those numbers are almost a perfect mirror image, at 26.1% and 53.3%, respectively.

The author further analyzes the use of "the" by pundits on the political talk show "The McLaughlin Group", again finding that speakers' use of "the" patterns with their political leanings. At the same time, while the pundits generally do use "the" more often in naming the party they are further from politically than in naming the party they lean toward, the differences here are subtler than in the House. The author notes this difference is attributable to a key difference in context: unlike members of the House, the pundits are speaking as outside observers and are expected to show a degree of journalistic objectivity.

The distancing effect of the-plurals like "the Americans", the author shows, is not part of the literal meaning of "the", but it's something people infer--based on a general human tendency to read into what we hear by comparing it to other expressions that might appear to offer a better mix of costs and benefits to the speaker. Moreover, these general principles appear to be universal. The author shows, for instance, that in languages with a similar set of alternatives for referring to a group of individuals, like Swedish and Dutch, using the expression with the definite article (or equivalent) tends to have the same distancing effect.

Thus, not only can function words send powerful and highly informative social signals, but through linguistic analysis one can predict the kinds of social signals particular function words are likely to send based on their core meanings and the core meanings of other related expressions.
The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) publishes the peer-reviewed journal, Language, four times per year. The LSA is the largest national professional society representing the field of linguistics. Its mission is to advance the scientific study of language.

Linguistic Society of America

Related Americans Articles:

Drug epidemic likely 'killing more Americans than we think'
Drug-related deaths in US are likely twice as many as previously thought, according to research from Samuel Preston of the University of Pennsylvania and Dana Glei of Georgetown University.
One-third of Americans use news sources they consider less reliable
One-third of Americans rely on news platforms they acknowledge are less reliable, mainly social media and peers.
Diabetes nearly double for Japanese-Americans
A new study found that Japanese-American adults who are not obese have a much higher prevalence of diabetes than non-obese non-Hispanic white Americans.
LGBTQ Asian-Americans seen as more 'American'
For Asian-Americans who are gay or lesbian, their sexual orientation may make them seem more 'American' than those who are presumed straight.
Despite health warnings, Americans still sit too much
Most Americans continue to sit for prolonged periods despite public health messages that such inactivity increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, according to a major new study led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St.
How much time do Americans spend sitting?
Americans spend more time sitting. Total time spent sitting increased about an hour per day to 8.2 hours for adolescents and 6.4 hours for adults in 2007-2016 in this analysis of nationally representative survey data.
What Americans know about science
There are substantial differences among Americans when it comes to knowledge and understanding of science and scientific processes.
One-third of Americans consider living abroad
Approximately one-third of all US-born US citizens living in the US are considering leaving to live abroad.
Alcohol use may increase among Hispanic Americans as they become more 'Americanized'
Data from over 68,000 Hispanic Americans, including first-generation immigrants and native-born individuals, indicate that people in this group who are more 'Americanized' are more likely to be drinkers, consume alcohol at greater intensity, experience more negative consequences associated with alcohol use and affect women more than men.
Poorest Americans most likely to have used prescription opioids
Among older Americans, the poorest are the most likely to have used prescription opioids, according to a University at Buffalo study providing new insights into unexplored contours of the opioid crisis.
More Americans News and Americans Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at