The Donald and The Women

August 10, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston
There’s so much to say about Donald Trump and about the reaction to Donald Trump. So it seems trivial to focus on one little word – “the.” But I found Clyde Haberman’s tweet fascinating.

The word Trump used was not “great” but “phenomenal.” [Added, 8/12: And the preposition he used was to, not for.] Either way, the point is that “I’d be phenomenal for to the women” is different from “I’d be phenomenal for to women.” But why? Why is that definite article so important? In many languages this distinction would never arise.

In English, “for the women” has always been the less common, at least according to Google n-grams.

In 1850 the “for women” appeared about twice as frequently as “for the women.” By 1965 that ratio had increased to about 8:1. Then came the resurgence of feminism. In 2000, that ratio had risen to more than 20:1.  True, the women’s movement did pay attention to language, but it focused on nouns – firefighter instead of fireman, for example – and honorifics (it’s Ms., not Mrs. or Miss).  I doubt that anyone was writing articles about articles.

What Haberman is suggesting, I think, is that when you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society.  Without the definite article, they are included. To say, “In our society we have Blacks, Jews, women. . . . .” implies that they are all part of our group. But, “We have the Blacks, the Jews, the women . . . .” turns them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.*

I don’t know why. But that’s the way it sounds to my ears.

UPDATE, August 12:  At Language Log Mark Liberman, who is a real linguist, agrees with me about the use of “the” here, but points out that I ignored the larger context of Trump's comments, which he provides in both audio and transcript. True. I was not interested in how Trump actually feels about women. I was not interested in whether or not he would in fact be phenomenal for them.  I was interested only in the linguistic question of how “phenomenal for women” differs from “phenomenal for the women.” 

The comments on Liberman’s post are worth reading.


* Among Jews of earlier generations, the cardinal question that might be asked of any issue was “Ist gut fuer yiddin?”  Translated as “Is it good for the Jews?” it suggests a lesser degree of integration and assimilation. There are “the Jews,” and there are the others (“the goyim”).  But “Is it good for Jews?” reduces the barrier. They are people who happen to be Jewish, not a special and separate group.


Anonymous said...

The word 'the' is singular. As such lumping all of a group into a single entity and saying that all need to be treated the same way is the issue.

Jay Livingston said...

Technically, articles in English are not singular or plural. We can say “the dog” or “the dogs.” But your point is the same one I was trying to make. “The” groups women as a separate entity, and all members within that category are interchangeable.

Anonymous said...

He didn't mention how he would treat "the" men. Why not "the people", which includes all kinds of "unsavory persons" of every possible description (and intimates that Trump is not one of "them".

Jay Livingston said...

There was a time when to talk about "the people" was tantamount to saying you were a commie. It was almost as much a giveaway as talking about "the workers."