The Meaning of the Word "the"

Since I was out sick yesterday, today was my first day in the classroom with 13 students who have been learning Greek for a week and 5 students who just arrived over the weekend. So the first group read chapters 10-12 for today while the newcomers are somewhere around ch. 6. My goal is to help make this course as successful as it can be for everyone, so I’m just thrilled that we have a full classroom and that the newcomers made the effort to earn their travel fare and make the long trek here.

Today in class, I decided to go back and review the main content in chs. 7-9, even though it was covered yesterday in my absence. I figured with several new members of the class and the quick pace of the course, it couldn’t hurt to spend a little more time on review.

Since feminine nouns were introduced in ch. 9, this led to a comparison of Greek, English and the students’ local languages in regards to the use of articles. I suspected that many of them did not even have definite articles in their languages. I made the point that Greek is very different from English in the use of definite articles, since English only uses ‘the’, but Greek has a paradigm of articles that includes three genders and five cases. And then someone asked…

What does the word ‘the’ mean?

Good question!

In English we call ‘the’ the definite article. It specifies a noun that is definite. It’s known information. I used an example of a boy who walks into the back of the class. We could refer to that boy as ‘the boy’ because everyone in the class saw him come in and the noun phrase ‘the boy’ would refer specifically to him. On the other hand, if I talk about a boy that I can see walking by the window in the back of the class, I need to refer to him as ‘a boy’ because no one else knows who I’m talking about.

Because the definite article is used with nouns that refer to known information introduced earlier in a text, it serves a discourse function. The definite article doesn’t operate only at the sentence level. In this way, English and Greek can be very similar in the use of articles.

On the other hand, there are differences. One readily observable difference is the use of articles with names in Greek! So when we read ‘the God’ in Greek, this should not necessarily trigger our normal English-language understanding of such a phrase. Greek also regularly speaks of ‘the Jesus’ just like it refers to ‘the James’ and ‘the Peter’.

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