The Donald's THE, again

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It's not really true that "you use 'the' in front of objects, not people" — today's NYT is full of phrases like "until now the Russians have been on board with regard chemical weapons"; "It is also, as the French like to say, digestible"; "a town in which the inhabitants were abandoned to their executioner". But Diana Prichard is on to something, and she's not the first to notice it.

See "Phenomenal to the women", 8/11/2015; "Ask the gays", 6/16/2016; "The NOUNs", 9/5/2016.

An observation from one of those posts:

The effect of the definite article with plural nouns on stance and attitude towards the referenced group is subtle and complicated. A bare plural is indefinite, so if someone urges us to "ask men", they're referencing some indefinite sample of adult males. In the generic case, they imply that any sample of men will do. But if they tell us to "ask the men",  they're talking about a specific and delimited group. That group might be contextually delimited — "ask the men (in the class) to leave the room" — but if the phrase is entirely generic, there's an odd implication of homogeneity and otherness.

And from another:

[D]espite the notorious inaccuracy of journalistic quotations, I'm inclined to believe that Trump really does refer to groups of people as "the Xs" more often than other public figures do.

But where I got stuck, three months ago, was in figuring out what's wrong with that.

In one sense, the answer is easy — talking about "the Xs" lumps a diverse group of people together as a homogeneous set, suggests an outlook friendly to essentialist stereotypes, etc.

But the trouble is, everybody does it.

Or do they? Feel free to continue the discussion below.


  1. Jonathan said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 10:28 am

    I agree that it the definite article highlights (in some way that I don't fully understand) homogeneity and commonality. But when you are asked questions about the common interests of some group, it doesn't trouble me to refer to the group using a definite article. I actually think it would be better for politicians in this realm to always say "Well, I don't think there's such a thing as 'the gays.' There are individuals who happen to share that characteristic and differ in others, and it's offensive to even think of advancing any particular characteristic quality over advancing human dignity in general. Any legislation has its impact on individuals, not groups."
    It should now be clear why I'd be hopeless running for anything.
    Besides, "is it good for the Jews?"

    It's common, but "is it good for the Jews?" This very common expression was used by Jews for years, so maybe there's a New York thing involved as well…

  2. Jon W said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 10:39 am

    Jonathan's "is it good for the Jews" is exemplary, and fits with Mark's point. Use of the definite article tends to communicate that the group in question is sharply bounded, and distinct from the majority. "Is it good for the Jews" is stereotypically attributed to Jewish speakers who did see their own in-group as bounded and distinct in that way — even if Jews themselves abandoned such boundaries, they believed, Jew-haters would impose them. Trump's use suggests the same attitude towards racial and sexual out-groups.

  3. leoboiko said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 10:45 am

    more often than

    I wonder if this may be the crux of the question. Whatever are the semantics of definiteness, most people wouldn't use such forms as "ask the gays" or "I have a great relationship with the blacks”. I think? Some simple COCA counts:

    VERB gays… 412
    VERB gay people… 148
    VERB gay men… 122
    VERB the gays… 30 (where #1 is "kill the gays" with 5 hits)

    VERB latinos… 150
    VERB the latinos… 13

    VERB blacks… 867
    VERB black people… 347
    VERB African-Americans… 254
    VERB the blacks… 91

    The fact that his idiolect deviates from the norm in this genre of discourse may make it seem like he doesn't know or care about the political issues involved. linguistic impression is then reinforced by, er, external evidence.

    (From a cursory look , I feel like many of "the X" hits on COCA sound depreciative or othering—"we want to govern ourselves and let the blacks govern themselves"—but this may well be my own selection bias.)

  4. Guy said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 11:01 am

    In the interest of being pedantic, I should point out that "the city's voters" splits into "the city's" and "voters" in the first analysis, with "the" as determined to "city", not to "voters". But it's certainly true that "the" does come before people, and not just in "the [characteristic]" uses. For example, there's also uses like "the President" and the "the man on the right".

    [(myl) OK, true — but it might have been "the voters of the city". Anyhow I've substituted "(Aleppo) will soon just be in ruins and will remain in history as a town in which the inhabitants were abandoned to their executioners".]

  5. Guy said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 11:02 am

    As determiner, I should say. My autocorrect apparently doesn't recognize that word.

  6. Joe said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 11:49 am

    The Washington Post did mention that Trump uses "The Whites" as well.

  7. Bloix said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 12:15 pm

    "But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."
    Martin Luther King, Jr. "I have a dream," August 28, 1963

    "Does the Negro need Separate Schools?"
    article by W.E.B. DuBois, Journal of Negro Education, 1935

    "The segregation of the Jew was so general, so complete, and so long continued as to intensify our 'peculiarities' and make them almost ineradicable."
    The Jewish Problem: How to Solve It, Louis D. Brandeis, 1915

    Things change.

  8. Wonks Anonymous said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

    You're right, things change, Bloix: they're using the singular rather than plural! Nowadays there would be a connotation of grandiosity to it, like "One small step for man" (which I've heard was actually "a man" but broadcast incorrectly or bungled when Armstrong said the memorized line). There's also something old-timey about it, like "Vanity, thy name is Woman".

  9. Philena said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 1:10 pm

    Bloix, there's a big difference between "the " and "the " when referring to an abstract category The examples you cite all use a singular noun, a similar usage to "The African swallow has an average airspeed velocity of warp 2." What this slightly archaic usage has morphed into is the modern-day "African swallows have an average airspeed velocity of warp 2." This is not at all the same as "The African swallows have an average airspeed velocity of warp 2" which leads me wondering "which African swallows? Did I miss part of an awesome conversation?"

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 1:59 pm

    Looking for an example like Bloix's in the plural, I found this by Gunnar Myrdal, as the stirring conclusion of a speech he gave to students at Howard University that was reprinted in the November 1962 issue of Negro Digest (huzza for the google books corpus!):

    “The integration of the Negroes in American society has already proceeded so far that without any hesitation you can feel that what is good for America is good for the Negroes—and equally you can feel that what is good for the Negroes is good for America . . .”

    I would be remiss in not noting the obvious Myrdal-Trump connection, namely that Myrdal was notoriously Swedish and that when Trump was growing up his father falsely claimed that the family was of Swedish ethnic origin (to avoid the negative perceptions associated with German ethnicity in the aftermath of WW2).

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 3:21 pm

    To pick up further on one of the oddities noted above, if you say, at least in many contexts, "ask men" (or "ask women" or "ask blacks" or "ask gay people" or what have you) without the article, you're not avoiding essentializing, because implicit in the statement is the notion that whatever semi-randomly chosen specific men (or women or etc) you happen to ask will presumptively be a valid sample of male (or female or etc) opinion and thus tell you what the larger group thinks about the point in question. So if "ask men" works out to mean more or less "ask a couple men who you can reasonably assume speak for men in general" you would think we would be back to the troubling-assumption-of-homogeneity point. But we apparently aren't — not because homogeneity isn't being assumed but because it isn't found troubling. So something else is probably going on, but I don't really know what.

  12. TR said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 3:40 pm

    The generalization here seems to be that populists running for high office in America use determiners in weird ways.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 3:47 pm

    Just to confuse things, there's usually nothing wrong if the plural noun is further delimited, as in "The Jews at the meeting agreed about how to respond." Or "disagreed".

    Bloix: I dislike "the Negro", "the Jew", "the white man", etc., which strike me as having an even stronger implication of homogeneity. I imagine the ghosts of King, DuBois, and Brandeis won't be bothered by my opinion.

  14. chh said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 4:01 pm

    @J.W. Brewer

    Do you not get a distinction between these?

    1. "Talk to women; you'll find they love me."

    2. "Talk to the women; you'll find they love me."

    To me, 2 implies a universal trait (and a homogenous group as mentioned above) while 1 doesn't necessarily.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 4:15 pm

    chh: In your examples 1 sounds more idiomatic to me than 2, but I don't get less of a sense of homogeneity to it. But if you switched "[the] ladies" for "[the] women," 2 might sound more idiomatic than 1.

    Actually, 2 only feels idiomatic if it refers in context to some identifiable and fairly smallish group of women (the women in my workplace, the women in my graduate seminar on morphophonology, the women who I bumped into last weekend at that comic book convention, whatever). Which is actually less essentializing, it seems to me, in that there may not be an implicit claim that the particular group of women being pointed to is representative of worldwide womankind, whereas 1 seems more like "talk to women, any women, because whichever specific women you happen to talk to will feel the same way."

  16. AntC said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 5:22 pm

    I noticed in this weekend's debate, whenever Trump said "The Latinos", he paused, then emphatically followed it with "The Hispanics".

    Is this merely some device to fill up time/while he prepares the next utterance?

    The way he stressed it, I'm wondering if he was making some Politically Correct distinction/inclusion. Do the terms denote different demographics? [Being PC doesn't seem likely for Trump. Especially after his remarks about Mexicans.]

    Wikipedia seems to struggle to make any significant distinction between the terms, opining it's mostly a personal choice of self-identification.

  17. Lelia said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 8:42 pm

    Eric Acton's Stanford dissertation talks about this exact issue — the distancing effect of "the" + plural. Unfortunately his dissertation pre-dates the Trump era, but he does talk about it political discourse, with reference to Trump's predecessor, Sarah Palin.

  18. Lelia said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 8:44 pm

    ^^ Link here:

  19. John Laviolette said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 9:30 pm

    I thought at first that there was something condescending about Trump's use of determiners with types of people, but now I'm reminded more of when older people use a determiner with, for example, the name of a website: "the YouTube", "the Facebook". But then, I hear a lot of people deliberately use that construction in a joking way, so I'm not entirely certain how common that is, or what it could mean.

  20. ryan said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 11:27 pm

    Not entirely unrelated, and I thought you'd be interested:

    From the Washington Post:

    “The tipping point for me was this last video — it’s like, enough is enough. Enough is enough. I’ve had it,” said Young, an airport worker who now plans to write in Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee. “I believed that he was tough and he had a set — but his set is a little too big.”

    I'm assuming I know what "a set" refers to. But is this an actual euphemism that this woman used. Or just the Washington Post editing her comments for publication?

  21. Rebecca said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 12:07 am


    I just came here to ask about that exact quotation, having absolutely no clue. Your assumption that it's a euphemism is a pissibility that didn't occur to me. The woman quoted was at a rally in Ambridge, PA, if that helps anyone decipher it.

  22. Doreen said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 4:39 am

    In my experience, "a set" is short for "a set of balls" — similar to "a pair," which is also a truncated version of a similar expression, often used in the context of exhorting a person considered timid or cowardly to "grow a pair."

    Great typo!

  23. mollymooly said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 4:58 am

    1. A leopard is bigger than a cheetah, though both have spots.
    2. The leopard is bigger than the cheetah, though both have spots.
    3. Leopards are bigger than cheetahs, though both have spots.
    4. The leopards are bigger than the cheetahs, though both have spots.
    5. Your leopard is bigger than your cheetah, though both have spots.
    6. Your leopards are bigger than your cheetahs, though both have spots.

    For me at least, 1 and 3 are generic; 2 can be either generic or specific; ditto 5 and 6 (though generic is very informal); but 4 must be specific. There seem to be restrictions on when "the + plural-noun" can be generic: are these restrictions syntactic, semantic, pragmatic?

  24. Rodger C said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 6:53 am

    I associate "the [singular of a societal group]," e.g. "the Negro," with sociological writing of half a century ago–the sort of thing that my generation of young pissed-off scholars in the 70s tried to kill with fire; specifically, in my case and others' in my vicinity, "the mountain man" [sic].

  25. Andreas Johansson said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 9:46 am


    I perceive approximately the opposite distinction – (1) says that all women love the speaker, (2) that some specific group (presumably identifiable by context) do.

  26. Lazar said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 10:24 am

    [Being PC doesn't seem likely for Trump. Especially after his remarks about Mexicans.]

    You'd be surprised. During his convention speech he said (very slowly and deliberately) that he would protect "LGBTQ" Americans – a formulation so progressive that even most Democratic politicians don't yet use it. As with his overwrought formulation of "the Hispanics, the Latinos", I think this was part of an overcompensating trend that pops up sporadically in Trump's rhetoric and positions.

  27. Ryan said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 12:39 pm

    The Nation Faces a Reification Crisis:

    Today, Trump is tweeting that "the Democrats" are more loyal than "the Republicans." I think he generally reifies groups, not just ethnicities.

  28. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 1:05 pm

    Does anyone know why Trump's language in general is so weird? I don't mean the repetition, which has been covered here, but his syntax and vocabulary choices often sound like a non-native speaker.

  29. Jonathan Lundell said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 5:05 pm

    Trump's "the cyber" has something of the same feel.

  30. gorram said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 6:38 pm

    I think there's potentially a missing, non-grammatical distinction here – between nationalities and between other adjectives-turned-nouns that describe groups of people.

    In general, the later are doing one set of things to communicate politeness:

    1. Nominalizing the adjective – the British, the French, the Chinese, etc rather than the British people (specifically or generally), and so on.

    2. A grammatically singular collective noun – the Chinese, is grammatically singular sure, but that very clear marks in in distinction to offensive ways of referring to Chinese people – "chinamen" or such. "The French" versus "Frenchmen" is maybe less loaded, but a similar rule seems to apply.

    3. Definiteness as default – Notably in the prior examples this keeps happening. It's tied up in most of these terms being nominalized adjectives of course, since it helps distinguish them from the adjective in some contests.

    On the other hand, non-nationality groups are addressed politely by an entirely opposite set of grammatical markers:

    1. Adjectivizing what were often nouns – Women/Men is probably the main exception here, but most of the others have politeness marked by using words that are often nominalized or originated as nouns as adjectives – Muslim people, gay people, mentally-ill people, physically disabled people (with people used to denote universality, but easily switched out with another noun to narrow the context if needed).

    2. A normal plural/singular distinction is maintained – As explained above, that often means that a more regular singular-plural distinction is possible. There's a gay person and there's gay people. There's a Muslim child and there's Muslim children. There's a Jewish neighbor and a whole bunch of Jewish neighbors.

    3. Indefiniteness as more default – You'll note in the last set of examples in item two above that none of the examples were definite. They could be, easily, if you're talking about the gay people you know from work, or the Muslim child who totally has a crush on your kid, or even the Jewish neighbors who keep having to replace their mezuzah. The definite suggests what it usually does – direct knowledge – which is a bit presumptuous to think you have of broad demographics?

    Especially on that last bit, one of the implications seems to be that there isn't a state or similar entity that can "speak" for all of the members of the group. That's unlike a nationality.

    Maybe this originated as a grammatical distinction – given that one set of these phrases strongly moved towards using compounds of adjectives and nouns and the other towards nominalized adjectives, but there's a semantic implication, of coordinated action and even the capacity to count up and list off every member of a given group that that grammatical distinction feeds into. That's definitely a bad implication for someone with Trump's politics to relay.

  31. parse said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 9:55 pm

    AntC, Trump claimed at his pre-debate Town Hall meeting in New Hampshire that he had learned on a recent trip to Las Vegas that the people he refers to as Hispanics, based on his experience in New York, prefer to be called Latinos in Nevada.

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