Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The "the"

I just found out from reading Wikepedia (which, by the way, is having a fund drive to support the website) that the most common word in the English language is the "the." Maybe that's why it's used so much by us, and by immigrants, not at all.

 The "the"

First by us: The one good thing about having one's daughter home for Thanksgiving is that I suddenly become aware of how much comic relief I'm able to provide solely by my use of the "the." For example, when I let slip "the google" or "the facebook," which inexplicably pops out when she's around, she laughs hysterically. Oh, isn't it funny how older people, especially parents, call facebook, The facebook, and google, The google? I can't explain my use of the "the" in these instances, i.e. in her presence; I'd never use an article in front of an indefinite noun otherwise.

I noticed when I was down in Philly attending a relative's fancy wedding, one of the Republican cousins used the "the" when talking about gays. "The gays," he said. "I wouldn't mind if my son or daughter were gay, not at all, but the gays are asking for equal everything, equal marriage and that's just not possible." Even my more liberal cousins were against "the gay marriage," for reasons I couldn't fathom but they explained it like this: Why use the word "marriage" when that's between a man and a woman. Use another word. I hadn't realized it was a problem of semantics.

R. Crumb's Adam and Eve, the first straight marriage
(doesn't look so straight if you ask me)

My Farsi, Thai, and Korean students this semester never use "the" or "a/an" in front of a noun; it's always "I go supermarket, he buys car, Lady talk a lot." I try to explain that the article, like the "the," is used to point out a particular one— which lady, what market, etc.... As Wikipedia explains it:  
Every noun must be accompanied by the article, if any, corresponding to its definiteness, and the lack of an article (considered a zero article) itself specifies a certain definiteness.
No wonder they're so confused.

I have my own "the" problem at school:

 "The troublemaker"

I know she looks sweet, well groomed and as handsome a woman as you could find in a night school that welcomes refugees, new immigrants and those that have been in this country for 30 years, but she's a rebel rouser, a stubborn mule, a determined fanatic; how else can I explain her actions?

Yafa N came to our school from Iran a little over two years ago, about the same time I arrived. She had no formal education, but she was always on time, never missed a day, kissed the mezuzahs as she passed through the classrooms, but was incapable of learning English. She repeated level one, two, three and four, three times each and still, was failing. With this track record you'd think she'd give up, but she was determined. Also, she was motivated by the fact that if she stayed in school she'd continue to receive food stamps, which is the way these things work with refugees. She needed food stamps, what with a family of six, an out-of-work husband, an economy that was dying, a hard-to-navigate-city without a car, and a newly married daughter. When it came time for her to take the final that would determine if she passed to level five, she received a D, by one percentage point. Which meant she was coming into my class— Advanced English. 

I knew she couldn't speak a word, but I didn't know how bad it was. If I asked her anything, the answer was "Yaw." How is your husband? Yaw, How was your weekend? Yaw, How was the expensive wedding? Yaw. Everything, Yaw. I could see this was going to go nowhere, so between the three teachers, we decided she should sign into my class but go to a lower level, back to level one. But when we told her, she carried on so you'd think her dear old mother had died. She cried, she slobbered over the mezuzahs, she yelled at the school administrator, complaining that she was being ignored, kicked around, that we didn't want her. She was a force to contend with, which eventually broke us down. I brought her back into my classroom where she stammered and failed, but tried as hard as any human possible. After a week, she gave up and returned to level two, signing into my class every evening to make her attendance official. 

 A colored coordinated Mezuzah at the Google

Then last week, the deciding hour: the Advanced final. The administrator whom she'd yelled out wanted her out, said if she made an F or even a D she was gone. I struggled with how much I would help her on the test: should I tell her the answers, or ignore her pleas for help? I ended up doing neither. When she asked me if an answer was right—pointing to the correct answer on her paper—I nodded yes, otherwise I said nothing. She must have figured it out because she made a 60 on the final, which was more than passing, and with a little adjustment on my part for her Oral, she came in at a C. Passing with flying colors.

Now we greet each other every evening. I tell her she must work hard, she must learn the English. She starts to shake her head in submission, "No, I can't," she says. I stand firm. "YES, you will." And the troublemaker smiles.



  1. excellent disquisition on "the."
    it's a powerfuul article. the loyal lefties referred to "the" party. the anti-Semites referred to "the" Jews.
    as to the google and the facebook... well, i'm laughing too.

  2. Its really a fantastic Blog.Trying to close the
    Mezuzah pendant hermetically is very complex the best way is probably to solder the top of the pendant after the parchment is inside this requires much caution so that the parchment will not burn.

  3. Why is learning a new language, even at the most basic level, so terribly difficult for some individuals and not others? Confidence? Education? Well, more power to The Troublemaker and The Teachers. Important work, though frustrating and incremental.

    The Brits use the noun "hospital" without the "the", just as we do with "school." It IS confusing...

    Oh, and a wonderful post.

  4. Melissa thanks for pointing out certain grammar (had to change something!) and i think the thing about English is when you start, the earlier the better, that's why I've given up on Spanish!

    Samual, thank you for your comments on the Mezuzah, I didn't know that fact!

    Lu, thanks for adding to the list; that little "the" can be used to separate by an ocean what we don't like.