The definite article of fame

In the NYT yesterday, an August 1st  letter from Pamela Shifman and Gloria Steinem in response to a July 30th op-ed essay on “The Girls Obama Forgot”. The letter-writers are identified in the Times as follows:

Ms. Shifman is executive director of the NoVo Foundation, which focuses on girls’ and women’s rights. Ms. Steinem is the writer and activist.

Both identifcations are semantically (or pragmatically) definite, conveying uniqueness in this case. The first has an anarthrous (article-less) title: executive director of X ‘the executive director of X’; in fact, the executive director of X would have been an entirely acceptable alternative, but the anarthrous version is shorter.

The second has the definite article, in a context where an indefinite article would have been entirely acceptable;

Ms. Steinem is a writer and activist

is not only syntactically well-formed, but also true. Why the definite article?

Two possibilities, not necessarily incompatible. One is that Gloria Steinem does indeed have unique reference in the cultural context: by virtue of her fame, Gloria Steinem is the unique person with that name. Another, related, possibility is that Gloria Steinem has a referent that is given in the cultural context, someone that “everyone knows” (in some sense of everyone).

In either case, the cultural context is important. If I have a letter published in the NYT, the paper is not going to identify me as the linguist, or even the Stanford linguist or the Stanford linguistics professor. The identification the linguist in a letter to the editor would fly only for Noam Chomsky; all other linguists would be identified with a NP having the indefinite article, or by a title (with a definite article or without any article), or by a predicate (NN teaches linguistics at X, NN does research on linguistics). Fame has its privileges.

One Response to “The definite article of fame”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I could see more reason for the definite article if there were in fact another Gloria Steinem who was, say, a well-known concert pianist, and the writer wanted to make it clear which one they were talking about.

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