The bike, the back, and the boyfriend
Confronting the “definite article conspiracy” in Canadian and British English
Using comparative sociolinguistic methods, we probe the underlying mechanisms governing the variation between possessive determiners, my bike, and the definite article, the bike, in possessive contexts in two mainstream English varieties (Canadian and British English, N = 6,217). Results indicate the is stable and pervasive, occurring approximately 30 percent of the time with personal domain possessed nouns. For some nouns, e.g. dog and cat, the occurs over 75 percent of the time. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary records possessive the as chiefly British, while Quirk et al. (1985: 271–272) observe that only low-status men use it; however, we find no difference between the UK and Canada, nor a significant gender or education effect in either dataset. When we model the variation between forms according to conceptions of ownership, we find an underlying system for encoding communal possession that transcends social categories and dialect: the more that possession is communal, the more the is used.
Keywords: definite article, determiners, possession, British English, Canadian English, comparative sociolinguistics, varieties of English, English dialects, alienability
Published online: 09 June 2020
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