Decreasing definiteness in crime novels

« previous post | next post »

In a series of posts over the last few years, I've documented gradual declines in the frequency of the English definite determiner "the" in a wide variety of text sources: State of the Union addresses, Medline abstracts, the Corpus of Historical American English, Google Books (from both American and British sources), and so on. Both in conversational speech and in informal writing, we see the kind of correlation with sex and age that we expect for a language change in progress; and there are surprisingly systematic geographical differences. (See the links below for details.)

For reasons discussed in a couple of recent posts ("Proportion of dialogue in novels", 12/29/2017; "Ross Macdonald: lexical diversity over the lifespan", 1/13/2018), Yves Schabes and I have been analyzing variation over time in the writing of some prolific 20th-century authors, so this morning I thought I'd take the opportunity to look at longitudinal changes in "the" usage in the two authors whose books I've processed so far, Agatha Christie and Ross Macdonald.

Given previous work on language change across the lifespan, we might see several different patterns:

Longitudinal studies of individuals and groups reveal three trajectory types postadolescence: stability (the most common), adopting (to some degree) a change led by younger people (the next most common trajectory), or swimming against the community current by reverting to an older pattern in later life (the least common trajectory).

What we do see:


  • Both authors show some evidence of adaptation to the on-going change;
  • Ross Macdonald's rates of "the" usage are well above Agatha Christie's, which is consistent with the previously-mentioned gender difference;
  • Ross Macdonald seems to have stabilized or even reverted a bit in the last ten years of his writing career, from 1965 to 1975.

Previous LLOG posts on the general topic of decreases in definiteness:

"SOTU evolution", 1/26/2014
"Decreasing definiteness", 1/8/2015
"Why definiteness is decreasing, part 1", 1/9/2015
"Why definiteness is decreasing, part 2", 1/10/2015
"Why definiteness is decreasing, part 3", 1/18/2015
"Positivity?", 12/21/2015
"Normalizing", 12/31/2015
"The case of the disappearing determiners", 1/3/2016
"Dutch DE", 1/4/2016
"The determiner of the turtle is heard in our land", 1/7/2016
"Correlated lexicometrical decay", 1/9/2016
"Style or artefact or both?", 1/12/2016
"Geolexicography", 1/27/2016



  1. Elonkareon said,

    January 22, 2018 @ 12:40 am

    Armchair speculation, how much of this is a change in language and how much a change in content? That is, with "the" being used to refer to objects already introduced, how much of its decreasing use simply reflects an increase in objects referred to.

    [(myl) Or an increase in pronouns rather than definite descriptions? Whatever the source, it needs to apply in a wide variety of text types.

    The most plausible theory seems to start from the observation that proportion of definite articles generally correlates with formality, and that English prose has been growing gradually less formal.]

  2. reader_not_acedeme said,

    January 22, 2018 @ 4:10 am

    Could the declining proportion of "the" be related to the growing proportion of dialog in later novels? It'd be interesting to check this in non-dialog text only.

    (The link to "Proportion of dialogue in novels" is wrong; it leads to post 3596 instead of 35968).

  3. Alex said,

    January 23, 2018 @ 5:06 pm

    But is Christie a good example, since she famously was the subject of an analysis linking the increasing vagueness in her noun and verb choices to the onset of dementia? (As discussed on LL ) Might that not correlate to a relative lack of definite articles?

    [(myl) Ross MacDonald also died of Alzheimer's. And we've been looking at their novels as part of an effort to explore related issues. But the trend towards decreasing definiteness is apparent in U.S. presidential State of the Union addresses, Medline Abstracts, and other sources where progressive neurodegeneration is not an issue.]

  4. Gillian Sankoff said,

    January 25, 2018 @ 5:28 pm

    I was fascinated to see how both authors adapted to ongoing change in the language as they aged. This finding is reminiscent of René Arnaud's research on the increase of the present progressive in the personal correspondence of well-known 19th century English authors, He showed that the rate of use of the progressive doubled between 1780 and 1880; that authors born later used it at a higher rate than those born earlier; and that several authors whose writing spanned many decades went along with the ongoing language change, by increasing their own use of the innovation. By the end of the 19th century, a sentence like "Now I will return to Fanny – IT RAINS. (Keats, 1818) sounded decidedly old fashioned. [Arnaud, René. 1998. The development of the progressive in 19th century English: a quantitative survey. Language Variation and Change 10: 123-152]

RSS feed for comments on this post