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OnWords: The 'The'


It’s remarkable how a tiny word like “the” can change the tone of a message.

Note the substantial difference between the terms “people with mental illnesses” and “the mentally ill.”

Invoking personhood in the former example helps, but by placing the definite article before “mentally ill” in the latter example, we lump together a set of experiences and ways of being in the world as varied as the people who experience them.

Other lumpening labels we use, like “the Blacks” or “the gays,” get thrown around by politicians and online commentators. These terms are meant to shift the focus of the conversation away from the lived experiences of being Black or being gay and into the realm of stereotype.

A person can identify as a gay, Black, paleontologist, model-airplane enthusiast, a way of being that could never be expressed by the simple categories “the gays” or “the Blacks.”

But when we invoke the “the,” category, we don’t just bring up stereotypes; we also obscure specific events and experiences that demonstrate structural injustice and discrimination.

We only know what a person goes through when being denied work or opportunity or inclusion by seeing specific details.

By “the”-ing a group of people, the stories that make up personhood disappear.  

Becoming aware of the power of even a tiny word like “the” can make us better, more sensitive, communicators.

It can also help us respond better when those who use these terms try to make good communication toxic. 

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.