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Mystery of the definite article
'The' is never easy
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Love is blue
L’amour est bleu

Most will be satisfied that the 2 statements are exactly equivalent- all senses and sensibilities that one can muster say so. If there can be objections even then, some will reply that linguistic customs, if not rules, will not allow modifications to get the 2 statements any closer. Which is a perfect way to beg the question.

I am of that camp of dissent though, and I say if there is an idiomatic begging there, it is for an actual question that is worth begging: why ?

Each time you look again at how the article ‘the’ works (obviously including how its absence works), something is always slightly off, slightly nagging. Some deeper recesses of the mind will never be satisfied, never give up.

In the statements above, it seems as though ‘Love’ is seen in contrast above a whole landscape of emotions: joy, hate, happiness, …; whereas “L’amour” is the only thing there is in the whole universe, or everything else is shut out of view.

Whatever it is, I say that it is there, and it makes the 2 statements say very distinctly different things, and it makes the 2 languages, so close of culture and heritage, hopelessly un-equivalent, or actually beautifully though naggingly so.

That still leaves the question why. Mystery, mystery.

Bob Bridges
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Robert, I wasn’t sure when I started this whether I was going to disagree or just comment, but by the time I was done I was more sure.   Consider “the quality of love is not strainèd”.   How is that different from “Love is patient, love is kind”?   It seems to me that the subject of both sentences is the same, though constructed differently.   Perhaps l’amour is equivalent to “the quality of love” or “the thing we call love”.

In English, we use “the” to mean a particular thing as opposed to its general kind.   When I say “the man came into the store today” I do not mean mankind came in, but one man, the man we were talking about just now.   “Pass me the butter” refers to the butter that’s on the table, not all the butter in the world.   This rule extends even to broad qualities; justice (not “the justice”) is blind, war is hell, life is art, truth is beauty and so on.

In French they use the definite articles more flexibly.   Maybe they can use them as above, to mean a particular thing; but they very often, perhaps more often, use them to refer to the quality or the totality of the noun.   They never ask one to pass le beurre, which to their ear would be a request for all the butter in the world if such a thing were possible; they ask for du beurre, “some [of all the] butter [in the world]”.   Contrariwise it is not vie that is gaie but la vie.

I may be mistaken but I don’t think this reflects a difference in how we think about men, butter, love and life, but only in how we think of “the”.   What I’m seeing in the above post is an assumption that the definite article is what it is, and the fact that we say “love” where the French say l’amour is a hint that the English and the French think differently about love.   But my own perception is that it’s a hint, rather, that the English “the” and the French le etc are not equivalent—analogous in places, but not identical.

(Note, too, that the French are much likely to speak of cet homme.   In English we’d say “the man” without reflection, and “this man” only when trying to make a contrast with that man.   But in French, l’homme can sometimes mean not “the man” but “mankind”, and the French cet homme can be accurately translated into English as “the man”—again, because the French use their definite articles somewhat differently than we do.)

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Very on-point indeed- French definite article can indicate the general sense of the noun (very very often does, like you indicated), so that ‘l’homme’ can mean ‘mankind‘, ‘la vie’ ‘life’ etc. Consequently the 2 sentences I put at top might very well be the very picture equivalency.

Now I might say: on the other hand, the other definition of it, the one that makes it same as the English ‘the,’ still takes the forwardmost space wherever it might be found in expositions of French grammar. But instead of blah blah like that, let me try a slightly different tack to illustrate my point:


Suppose a ‘neutral language’ statement runs like this:



Like any statement, the only way it can make any sense is if it implies a contrast against the things that are not mentioned. Of which contrast there are 2 possibilities in this case:

(1) Love as not joy, hate, happiness… (the answer to which emotion?)

(2) Blue as not red, yellow, violet… (the answer to which color?)


How would one ever hope to bring out these unsaid ideas with a dummy statement like ‘love-be-blue’ ? A believer in the power of the DA though, I would say that that task is quite amply achievable.

To achieve sense (1), I would not use the DA in front of love. Why? Because doing that would have meant distinguishing love from other loves, whereas ‘love’ would mean a contrast to the things that are not love. In other word, I am deploying a DA-in-absence.

To achieve sense (2) I would put a DA in front of love. Why? Because that indicates that love is already a ‘known’ thing, so attention should be directed at the colors instead.

Now the final step is to put flesh on the dummy statement, using live languages. Knowing how DA’s click with French and English, I would use them, to finally end up with these, the same sentences that I had before:


Love is blue. ( sense (1) )
L’amour est bleu.  ( sense (2) )


(Now it doesn’t hurt, by the same logic, to add a ‘the’ somewhere to indicate that blue is a ‘known’ thing: Love is of the color blue. )

The point is that there is room for a view that the DA is a potent language element, by presence or absence. Every time you add or omit it, in French or English, some chord in the brain says something significant has been done there.

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