What Does "The" Mean?

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

It’s the most frequent word in the English language, accounting for around 4 percent of all the words we write or speak. It’s everywhere, all the time, so clearly it must be doing something important. Words have meaning. That’s fundamental, isn’t it? So this word “the,” a word that seems to be supporting a significant portion of the entire weight of our language, what does this word mean? It must mean something, right? 

We can say, roughly, that “the” means the word it is attached to refers to a specific, individual object. When I say “I have the apple,” I mean a certain apple, not just “an apple”—any old apple, or “apples” in general.

But, of course, it’s not quite that easy. Sometimes “the” doesn’t indicate a specific object, but a whole class of objects. When you say you know how to play “the piano” or that exercise is good for “the heart,” there is no specific piano or heart you have in mind. “The pen is mightier than the sword” isn’t about specific pens or swords or even about specific instances of their metaphorical counterparts, acts of writing and acts of aggression.

“The” does not seem like a difficult word, but it’s very hard to explain to someone who isn’t a native speaker. Why do we say, “I love the ballet,” but not “I love the cable TV”? Why do we say, “I have the flu,” but not “I have the headache”? Why do we say, “winter is the coldest season,” and not “winter is coldest season”? For speakers of Russian, Korean, or any language that doesn’t have a “the,” these are important questions.

The only satisfactory answers are found, not in an explanatory definition, but in lists of situations where “the” is used. Such a list is what you find, in fact, if you look up “the” in the dictionary, something native speakers almost never do. Why would they? It’s not “anthropomorphism” or “jejune” or one of those words people need dictionaries for. But dictionary-makers are tasked with defining all the words people use, not just the glamorous ones, and sometimes the simplest words turn out to be the hardest ones to define. The entry for “the” on Merriam-Webster.com lists 23 places where it can go, among them “before the plural form of a numeral that is a multiple of ten to denote a particular decade of a century or of a person's life <life in the twenties>” and “before the name of a commodity or any familiar appurtenance of daily life to indicate reference to the individual thing, part, or supply thought of as at hand <talked on the telephone>.” These uses are related to each other in a loose and complex way, but it’s impossible to pull out the single definitive meaning that underlies them all. You simply have to list them. And that list is the meaning.

The OED lists 50 entries for “the,” some of which are only historical relics. It was once correct to play “the chess,” to learn “the dressmaking” and “the mathematics,” and to read “the French,” all for “the posterity.” The “the” dropped out of those situations. The fact that it doesn’t go before those words anymore is also part of its meaning.

So the meaning of “the” is the combination of the situations where it is appropriate and the situations where it is not appropriate. This makes it quite different from straightforwardly definable words like “octahedron” (“a three-dimensional figure having eight plane faces”), but not much different from “different” or “see” or “now” or any of the everyday words we use all the time. We like to think of words as little containers of meaning that we pack and unpack as we communicate, but they are not containers so much as pointers. They point us toward a body of experience and knowledge, to conversations we have had and things we have read, to places in sentences where we have and haven’t seen them. Words get their meanings from what we do with them. Especially the word we use the most.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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11 Thoughtful Gifts For Word Lovers

iStock.com/Jelena Danilovic
iStock.com/Jelena Danilovic

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It’s easy to spot the logophiles in your life: They’re the people who are addicted to word games, have full libraries at home, or who are always quick to provide you with the word that’s on the tip of your tongue. This holiday season, indulge your loved one’s passion for words with a gift they’ll appreciate.

1. Book Couch; $25

Gifts for Readers & Writers Store/Amazon

The better the book, the more exhausting it is to hold up. Give a rabid reader’s tired arms a rest with the Book Couch, a plush lap rest that props up books, e-readers, and tablets so they can gorge on words with minimal effort. It’s available in blue, grey, red, diner booth, and hot lips.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Moleskine’s Book Journal

Moleskine

The new year is a great opportunity to start a book journal. This one from Moleskine is specifically designed for documenting someone’s reading history, with sections for recording general information about the title as well as jotting down impressions and memorable quotes. Like other Moleskine products, this notebook comes with useful features like ribbon bookmarks and an expandable inner pocket.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Shakespearean Insults Chart; $25

Uncommon Goods

Give this chart to someone you know and instantly add color to their insult arsenal. The poster not only list dozens of scathing jabs from the works of Shakespeare, but it also breaks them down into categories like “body qualities” and “personal attributes” and subcategories like “knaves” and “dunghills.” The chart measures 24 by 18 inches and comes with a magnetic birch frame for an extra $30.

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

4. KenzaPad; $60

Scott MacMillan, Kickstarter

Smartphones are convenient for taking notes on the go, but it’s hard to beat the tactile sensation of jotting down a thought with a pen and paper. The KenzaPad combines the best elements from both mediums into one handy tool. The pad looks and acts like a wallet on the outside, with pockets for holding keys, cards, and pens. Flip open the magnetic seal and it transforms into a notepad you can hold with one hand and write in with the other. And no thicker than a smartphone, the KenzaPad neatly slips into a purse or pocket.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Book Darts; $9

Amazon

Book darts give book lovers ultimate control over their reading experience. Instead of putting down a book mid-paragraph, or rushing to the next page before adding a bookmark, these tools let readers save their place down to the line. With 50 metal tabs per package, they’re also a great, reusable alternative to highlighters or sticky notes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Flexilight Xtra Booklight; $9

Flexilight/Amazon

Got a young reader to buy for? Grab one of the Flexilight Xtra booklights. Unlike most booklights, this LED-powered light is flexible enough to conform to most any book and comes in fun designs like penguins, dogs, and owls for kid word buffs. It’s also thin enough to double as a bookmark.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Novel Teas; $14

Bag Ladies Tea/Amazon

Few things go better together than a good book and a cup of tea. Now readers can elevate their cozy book appointments with Novel Teas, a set of 25 individually-wrapped teabags that each have literary quotes on them. The product also has one of the great slogans in advertising history: “Read ‘em and steep.”

Buy it: Amazon

8. William Shakespeare Engraved Inspirational Quote Pen; $20

Inkstone/Amazon

Keep the wisdom of the Bard close at hand with this engraved pen sporting the classic Shakespeare line: “To thine own self be true.” The ballpoint pen is compatible with G2 ink refills.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Other-Wordly; $13

Chronicle Books/Amazon

Take a trip through an assortment of arcane and delightful words in this sumptuous book by Yee-Lum Mak and illustrator Kelsey Garrity-Riley. Discover words in multiple languages that express all things beautiful.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Retro Series Scrabble; $20

Amazon

Scrabble has been updated several times since its debut, but the original edition remains a classic. This Retro Series-edition of Scrabble is the same version of the game that appeared on shelves in 1949, complete with vintage wood tiles and racks. Whether or not the players stick to words that were dictionary-official 70 years ago is up to them.

Buy it: at Amazon

11. Punderdome: A Card Game for Pun Lovers; $14

Clarkson Potter/Amazon

No true word lover can resist a good pun. Punderdome makes a game out of wordplay, tasking players with taking two prompts from the deck and making one terrific (i.e. awful) pun out of them. You can even play virtually for socially-distanced game nights.

Buy it: Amazon

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