Subway Prophet wonders why don't we get rid of articles in English, The

Is this IMHO or GD? Don’t know. Has this been discussed here before? Probably, but try searching for the text “article a an the” without crashing the server. Inspired by this post.

I’d been trying to write a computer program that, among other things, sorts titles intelligently. One of the rules in English is that, when you sort a list of phrases (e.g. titles) by their first letter, you must disregard articles (“a”, “an”, and “the”) if they are the first word in the phrase. This seems simple and straightforward enough, and easy to justify: who wants a big clump of titles filed under “the”, when the word “the” doesn’t add much to the title?

However! It’s not as simple as removing “a”, “an” and “the” from the beginning of each line so encumbered, because there is a small but significant number of potential titles that start with a word that looks like an article but is not an article - e.g. “A is for Apple” and “The The’s Discography”, though these probably make up most of the exceptions.

Another possible exception is where an indefinite article (“a”, “an”) is used as a quantifier. For example, “a day at a time” can be phrased as “one day at a time” without significantly changing its meaning, and that initial “a” is very significant - compare it to “three days at a time”. Is the first “a” still an article or an adjective? If you modify your sorting method to arrange numerics together, sorted by numerical value (e.g. “three thousand” comes after “two”), where do “a” and “an” fit in? Can you tuck them in with the ones?

Long story short: Because the exceptions are so bloody difficult to parse precisely, I’ve given up on writing the perfect title sorting method, and opted instead for assuming that the person entering the data is smart enough to handle articles. A less than elegant solution, sure, but it’s not like this program was generating any revenue. But I’m still scratching my head over the mere existence of these seemingly innocent words.

So why does the English language still use these wretched things? From what I’ve read, not many modern languages rely on them so much. For example, many Romantic languages whose nouns have gender, such as French and Spanish, allow you to omit the article if the noun’s quantity is unambiguous.

Are articles vestigal? Should we cut them out like throbbing wisdom teeth?

Is there any way you can inplement a stop-list feature? A stop list would have all the words you don’t want it to sort by.

I don’t think articles are obsolete, because ystill communicate meeting. For instance, if I say

I found a cat

that means I found un unspecified cat. But if I say

I found the cat,

it means I found a specific cat that has gone missing. The also carries meaning related to importance, as in,

Are you THE Zaphod Beeblebrox?
No, just a Zaphod Beeblebrox, didn’t you hear I come in sixpacks?.

If a language feature can still be functional a language’s humorous writing, then it can’t be obsolete.

I think Subway’s point is that English unnecessarily requires the use of articles regardless of whether they convey any additional meaning.

To use your examples, if our cat’s been missing for a week and I found it during the day, I could tell my wife “I found cat” and she would understand the cat I found was ours. If, on the other hand, I had in fact found a different stray cat, I would need to be more explicit and tell her, “I found a cat”.

An analogy would be if English required the mandatory use of colors in normal conversation. In some cases they’re necessary to convey meaning: “Which car are you going to take to work?” “I’m taking the red car.” But in others, it’s unneeded: “Where did you park our red car?” “I parked our red car in our white garage.” (Assuming you only have one car and one garage.)

I don’t know about French, but Spanish uses its articles as much if not more than English. Often, in instances where we would drop the article, Spanish requires it.

For a language without articles, look at Russian.

Are you sure you’re not thinking of omitting the pronoun when a verb’s subject is unambiguous? I don’t know as much about Spanish, but I’ve certainly never noticed much article-dropping in French (which, come to think of it, doesn’t often drop pronouns, either). If anything, French uses more articles than English (e.g. “I have tea” vs. “J’ai du thé”).

And considering that Latin had no articles, but every single language descended from it has developed them, they must serve some useful purpose.

Goddamn atheist.
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