Trending: β€˜the’

Lookups spiked 500% on August 14, 2019

Why are people looking up the?

Very common words are looked up frequently in the dictionary (love is among the top five lookups in the history of our site), which is sometimes surprising to people, but it's truly rare to see one of the most basic function words in the English language spike in our data: the.

The Ohio State University filed a trademark application for the word the with the U.S. Patent Office, in order to protect new branding logos that emphasize the "The" that is part of the official (some say pretentious) name of the institution.

What does the mean?

Since function words like the definite article the (as well as the indefinite article a and some senses of prepositions like by and with, among many other such words) actually indicate grammatical relationships with other words more than conveying meaning themselves, they are extremely difficult to define in the traditional way with a substitutable phrase. Our dictionary uses usage notes to explain how these terms are used, which are indicated by dashes.

In this case it seems that the use of the in "The Ohio State University" would be this:

β€”used as a function word with a noun modified by an adjective or by an attributive noun to limit the application of the modified noun to that specified by the adjective or by the attributive noun

(The "attributive noun" in this case being Ohio.)

It's possible that the patent seekers consider their the to be somewhere between this other sense:

β€”used as a function word before a proper name (as of a ship or a well-known building)

And this one:

β€”used as a function word to indicate that a following noun or noun equivalent is a unique or a particular member of its class

These are among the twenty separate uses of the article the that we define.

Where does the come from?

The is one of the oldest words in English, and is pronounced \thuh\ before words that begin with consonants ("the governor") and \thee\ before words that begin with a vowel ("the only one").

But the pronunciation of the can also indicate emphasis or suggest uniqueness (a also works this way), which is a stressed version of \thee\, the difference between "The Ohio State University" and "THE Ohio State University" (notice how you would read the name in two different ways if you add emphasis the second time).

What is notable about this use of the?

Only a few institutions of higher learning include an official The in their names, including The Catholic University of America, The College of William and Mary, and The George Washington University.

It is not known whether these other institutions are also seeking trademark status for their thes.


Trend Watch is a data-driven report on words people are looking up at much higher search rates than normal. While most trends can be traced back to the news or popular culture, our focus is on the lookup data rather than the events themselves.

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