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This article is taken from PN Review 228, Volume 42 Number 4, March - April 2016.

The-ology: On the Definite Article in English Verse Graham Pechey

Many of my titles in this book have the definite article [...] The reader must not think I am offering him a set of Theophrastean characters. I am not generalizing; ‘The Conscript’ does not stand for all conscripts but for an imagined individual; any such individual seems to have an absolute quality which the definite article recognizes.

This ‘absolute quality’ Louis MacNeice claims for the English definite article in his volume Springboard (1945) wasn’t won early or easily. It is not to be found in all literary contexts; and when modernist poetry gave it its head, it was neither welcomed by all critics nor provided with a basis for understanding by linguists. Linguists tell us that the definite article sprang from a mutation in the paradigm of demonstrative pronouns some eight hundred years ago: a form that had developed in late Anglo-Saxon lost its inflection for gender and number to become the only definite article in Middle English. In so doing it escaped the demonstrative paradigm altogether, setting up a new paradigm in correlation with the independently developing indefinite article. The as a full-fledged definite determiner, then, has been with us for roughly half the life of our language. Grammarians tell us that felicitous uses of the article depend on conditions of ‘familiarity’ or ‘uniqueness’ which guarantee its efficacy in pragmatic speech situations. Directions given to a wayfarer – ‘Turn left at the church’ – would fail to help him if these conditions were not met; they belong therefore, quite legitimately, to the normality and utility of communication.
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