When I was in middle school, the worst fights on my campus all centered around the question: â€œWho's better? REO Speedwagon or The Knack?â€ (Don't answer till you've downloaded an MP3 of â€œGood Girls Don't.â€)
How things have changed.
Just this week a teacher in the Sacramento area wrote to tell me about a bitter campus conflict the likes of which my â€œLaverne & Shirleyâ€-watching set could have never survived.
Kathy, a middle school language arts teacher, wrote: â€œI have been telling my students that 'a' 'an' and 'the' are considered adjectives, articles and determiners. One of my students this last weekend confided with me that she fought with her older 'grammar-meanie' sister over the fact that 'the' is an adjective, as well as an article and determiner. The older sister insisted that 'the' is strictly an article.â€
For all those who've been looking for a smoking gun to prove that today's youth are leading this country to Hades in a handbasket, there it is. If only we could turn back the clock to a simpler time when sitcoms numbed young minds. But we cannot. It's a rough new world, which the rest of Kathy's message makes all too clear.
â€œThe two sisters Googled 'the' and found conflicting websites,â€ she wrote. (In my day, no one Googled. We giggled.) â€œSome websites argued that â€œtheâ€ is an article and scoffed at it being an adjective, while other sites said it was an adjective and article.
So my question for you is twofold. First, what is your opinion? Is 'the' an adjective? Next, what website would you consider to be a leading expert for students to check on such puzzling questions?â€
I wanted to be the bearer of happy news, providing for Kathy and her students clear answers and a path out of the linguistic viper's den. I could not.
For the first question, what is my opinion, there was only one answer I could give: I have no opinion. I learned long ago that, when it comes to certain things, there's just no use picking a side (even if it's crystal clear that Shaun Cassidy is way cuter than David). Instead, I defer to the experts.
According to â€œWebster's New World College Dictionary,â€ â€œtheâ€ is both an article and an adjective. I even looked up â€œarticleâ€ to see if I could get further confirmation. I did: â€œ6. Gram. any one of the words 'a,' 'an,' or 'the' (and their equivalents in other languages) used as adjectives.â€
But if you think that provided a neat resolution to our nasty conflict, you're living in the kind of dream world where Pam Dawber is on her way to lifelong stardom.
That's because, unlike Webster's New World, Merriam-Webster's online dictionary does not put the little â€œadj.â€ in the front of its listing for â€œthe.â€ Nor does the American Heritage Dictionary's fourth edition.
In other words, the most trusted dictionaries in the country are no better at resolving this question than two scrapping schoolgirls. Still, they're better than the Web. That's why I told Kathy that my preferred website for such matters was none at all. I stick to books.
â€œAnd always check several,â€ I told her. â€œBecause if they don't agree, and often they don't, the answer is that there is no answer. So there's no use fighting about it.â€
And with that, I hope I did my little part to make the world a better place for today's young people. We can only hope that, in the future, young people's disputes will center around the questions I'm best equipped to deal with, like, â€œWhich is better: Frankenberry or Count Chocula?â€
?JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of â€œGrammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies.â€ You can reach her at JuneTCN@aol.com.