Bad news, article fans: The Angry Grammarian might not be long for this world.
Not this column, of course — it’s not going anywhere. But rather the part of speech article, and specifically the definite article the. Last week it was revealed that the Ohio State University filed a trademark for the word the. If the school is successful, the rest of us can’t use the without the Buckeyes’ permission, and you’re left reading Angry Grammarian in Philadelphia Inquirer.
The Ohio State University, it seems, really doesn’t like to be called Ohio State University, and so they’ve made their position known with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. No, the rest of us wouldn’t actually be forbidden from using the. But while the idea that someone would trademark such a fundamental word is ludicrous, it gives us a moment to appreciate how versatile the is. Searches for the spiked 500 percent on Merriam-Webster’s website last week.
Articles are one of the most limited and yet most essential parts of speech. English has only three of them working full time — a, an, and the. While you could get through the day without using a single adverb — and many would say you should — good luck crossing the street without needing an article.
They’re gloriously complex and notoriously difficult to define. At more than 900 years old, the three-letter word the is one of the oldest words in English. It takes up half a column in Merriam-Webster’s 11th edition dictionary, and even has different pronunciations depending on whether it’s followed by a vowel sound (like thee Ohio State University) or a consonant sound (thuh school). Give the long-E sound a hint of extra verbal emphasis and presto: instant snootiness!
Its capitalization is the bane of copy editors everywhere. Sure, it’s important and appropriate to capitalize The if it’s set off by italics, as around publications or movie titles (The Philadelphia Inquirer, The $100,000 Pyramid), or quotation marks, as around song titles (“The Git Up,” “The Twist”). But if you’re just capitalizing a proper noun in a sentence (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Donald), a capitalized The stands out like a lonely shout in the woods. (Don’t even think about using this as an excuse to overuse quotation marks. Put that pen down.)
Even though the is widely accepted as an article, it can even occasionally function as an adverb, as in: I’m none the wiser for reading this.
So while the will always be for all of us, the OSU is hardly the first to make absurd trademark claims. Paris Hilton owns the trademark to the phrase “That’s hot.” Emeril Lagasse’s company trademarked the interjection “Bam!” for use with respect to cooking utensils. Pat Riley, with two years of winning behind him in 1988, trademarked the phrase “three-peat” in the event that the Los Angeles Lakers won a third time. The Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in ’89, but now whenever someone wants to use that term on sports merch (as the Chicago Bulls did just a few years later), Riley gets paid.
This lucrative merchandizing world is where the OSU wants to protect (or exploit) its interests. You can already buy red shirts with a giant “THE” above the school’s much smaller logo.
So if THE Angry Grammarian has to change its name, let’s try a new business plan: Who wants to go in with me on a line of apparel for our other parts of speech? Conjunction caps and preposition pants? That’s hot.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. That’s every other week, not twice a week, friends. Send comments, questions and attributive nouns to email@example.com.