The most commonly-used word in English might only have three letters – but it packs a punch.
‘The’. It’s omnipresent; we can’t imagine English without it. But it’s not much to look at. It isn’t descriptive, evocative or inspiring. Technically, it’s meaningless. And yet this bland and innocuous-seeming word could be one of the most potent in the English language.
‘The’ tops the league tables of most frequently used words in English, accounting for 5% of every 100 words used. “‘The’ really is miles above everything else,” says Jonathan Culpeper, professor of linguistics at Lancaster University. But why is this? The answer is two-fold, according to the BBC Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth. George Zipf, a 20th-Century US linguist and philologist, expounded the principle of least effort. He predicted that short and simple words would be the most frequent – and he was right.
The second reason is that ‘the’ lies at the heart of English grammar, having a function rather than a meaning. Words are split into two categories: expressions with a semantic meaning and functional words like ‘the’, ‘to’, ‘for’, with a job to do. ‘The’ can function in multiple ways. This is typical, explains Gary Thoms, assistant professor in linguistics at New York University: “a super high-usage word will often develop a real flexibility”, with different subtle uses that make it hard to define. Helping us understand what is being referred to, ‘the’ makes sense of nouns as a subject or an object. So even someone with a rudimentary grasp of English can tell the difference between ‘I ate an apple’ and ‘I ate the apple’.
Those in higher status positions also use ‘the’ more – it can be a signal of their prestige and (self) importance. And when we talk about ‘the prime minister’ or ‘the president’ it gives more power and authority to that role. It can also give a concept credibility or push an agenda. Talking about ‘the greenhouse effect’ or ‘the migration problem’ makes those ideas definite and presupposes their existence.
‘The’ can be a “very volatile” word, says Murphy. Someone who refers to ‘the Americans’ versus simply ‘Americans’ is more likely to be critical of that particular nationality in some capacity. When people referred to ‘the Jews’ in the build-up to the Holocaust, it became othering and objectifying. According to Murphy, “‘The’ makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals.” It’s why Trump was criticised for using the word in that context during a 2016 US presidential debate.