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?