When can the tiniest little part of speech mean the difference between compromise and building thousands of miles of an ill-defined, unpopular, dubiously effective physical barrier?
The Atlantic had a great piece last month examining President DonaldTrump and his administration’s shifting usage of definite and indefinite articles before wall: from the early notions of building “a wall,” with the indefinite a, to a more definitive “build the wall,” once the idea of a wall was more cemented (no pun intended) in his supporters’ minds.
Then last month, things got weird. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified before Congress, “I would ask for wall. We need wall.” No article at all, and ironically sounding like a recently arrived nonnative English speaker.
This grammatical quirk seemed like a strategic shift, but no pundits could quite figure out what the strategy was.
It helps to look at why we have articles in the first place. They’re deceptively complicated.
At first blush, it seems silly to have a whole part of speech reserved for just three little words — a, an, the — and two of the words (a, an) function exactly the same. If you learned about articles in school, you spent one minute learning that a and an are indefinite articles, 45 seconds learning that the is the definite article, and then spent the rest of class not understanding when you’re supposed to use the subjunctive.
But the dictionary reveals there’s much more to these linguistic gems.
Almost half of the first page of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: 11th Edition is taken up by the 28 different definitions of the word a. It’s not till the second column, just after the entry for aardvark, that you’re terrified to learn that there’s actually a thing called an aardwolf. Same deal with the, whose definitions claim half a column. (No scary animals there, but we definitely need to find a modern use for thecodont, an 1840 adjective meaning “having the teeth inserted in sockets.” Ew.)
Using a or an keeps things loose and undefined, while the is precise: “I want a sandwich” vs. “I want the sandwich.” The implies a familiarity, that everyone knows precisely which sandwich you’re hungry for. Deliberate or not, wall descriptions that include the imply that same familiarity. Descriptions that omit a and the entirely make the wall sound almost otherworldly.
Throughout the debate, wall advocates have tried different characterizations, from “enhancements at the border” to “steel slats” to “barrier” to “fencing” to just straight-up pictures. Each case is a linguistic or grammatical shift to find what Americans would feel most comfortable erecting.
More recently the article-less wall seems to have been dumped in favor of increased modifiers and shifting the definition of what constitutes a wall, and mentioning it less and less by name. Among the 1,121 words of Trump’s Tuesday-night Oval Office address, only five of them were wall, and only one made plain reference to the wall. Compare that with 19 references to border and 13 mentions of illegal. At no point did he mention the article-less wall.
Kellyanne Conway has said that the ongoing debate over what constitutes a wall is a “silly semantic argument.” Semantic? Definitely. But nothing could be further from silly.