Most of the time, the is just a definite article, required by the rules of English grammar. When given special emphasis in speech, however, it becomes a sort of superlative.

Compare these sentences:
"Microsoft is a source of great suffering in the world."
"Microsoft is the source of great suffering in the world."

Grammatically, you're saying that it is the only source of great suffering in the world, but in speech, the word the can be given special emphasis. It's not just "thuh source", it's "THEE source".

While modern English grammar tends to assume that 'the' is the definite article, we also use it as an odd and archaic adverb. In Old English þy was used as the instrumentive case of the neuter demonstrative -- or, to put it more clearly, the form of 'that' that indicates a causal relationship. As the language settled into the modern morass, þy melted into 'the', and no one much noticed.

This becomes much more intuitive given examples: the more the merrier, the sooner the better, the bigger they are, the harder they fall, the more I see, the less I like it. In all of these cases, the 'the ' is filling a role approximately equal to modern English's if/then combo; 'if more, then merrier", etc. It did not always change into modern form as paired the's, as in þy læs þe ('the less that'), a phrase that echos down the ages in phrases such as nonetheless and nevertheless. However, the adverbial 'the' does always pair with a comparative.

"Though the camomill, the more it is troden on, the faster it growes:
so youth the more it is wasted, the sooner it weares."
Henry IV, Part 1 (1598)

An interesting note to this; the Oxford English Dictionary makes the claim that these paired comparative clauses indicate a 'proportional dependence' -- that is, these the/the pairs can be roughly translated as 'to the degree that' / 'in that degree'. While that may be broadly true in spirit, it is most certainly not the sort of logical relationship most people mean when using these constructions; 'the more the merrier' rarely means "I hope a million people come!"; it just means that one more person is being welcomed into the group.

The (?), v. i.

See Thee.


Chaucer. Milton.


© Webster 1913.

The (&th;&emac;, when emphatic or alone; &th;&esl;, obscure before a vowel; &th;e, obscure before a consonant; 37), definite article. [AS. [eth]e, a later form for earlier nom. sing. masc. s�xc7;, formed under the influence of the oblique cases. See That, pron.]

A word placed before nouns to limit or individualize their meaning.

The was originally a demonstrative pronoun, being a weakened form of that. When placed before adjectives and participles, it converts them into abstract nouns; as, the sublime and the beautiful. Burke. The is used regularly before many proper names, as of rivers, oceans, ships, etc.; as, the Nile, the Atlantic, the Great Eastern, the West Indies, The Hague. The with an epithet or ordinal number often follows a proper name; as, Alexander the Great; Napoleon the Third. The may be employed to individualize a particular kind or species; as, the grasshopper shall be a burden. Eccl. xii. 5.


© Webster 1913.

The, adv. [AS. [eth]�xc7;, [eth]�xdf;, instrumental case of s�xc7;, seo, [eth]aet, the definite article. See 2d The.]

By that; by how much; by so much; on that account; -- used before comparatives; as, the longer we continue in sin, the more difficult it is to reform.

"Yet not the more cease I."


So much the rather thou, Celestial Light, Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers Irradiate. Milton.


© Webster 1913.

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