THE indefinite articles "a" and "an" and the definite article "the" account for almost 10 percent of all the words we use, and in most cases they are no more obtrusive than a heartbeat. But leave one out, or put one in an unexpected place, and the effect can be substantial.
Slavic languages are famous for their lack of articles. The trait carries over into how some Slavs speak English, and this has long been a target of parody. (Here's the cosmonaut Lev, in the movie Armageddon: "I hear rumor on radio. My country broke. No steaks in freezer.") Adding an article before a noun that usually lacks one can bring about a variety of shifts in tone. Learning calculus and Greek was tough -- how much more romantic to have been able to study "the calculus" or "the Greek," as the Victorians did. Sometimes the definite article adds a pretentious note. I know of a socially ambitious commercial building where signs above the escalators direct visitors to THE SHOPS and THE OFFICES. Last year's Ryder Cup tournament was held near Boston at an establishment called simply The Country Club (and don't forget the annual Harvard-Yale gridiron encounter, The Game). In Celtic lands the definite article before a proper name designates a clan leader: Michael Joseph O'Rahilly, one of the martyrs of Ireland's Easter Rebellion, in 1916, is known in Irish history textbooks as "The O'Rahilly." A similar acknowledgment of singularity was bestowed by Sherlock Holmes on Irene Adler, the only person ever to outwit him; according to Dr. Watson, Holmes referred to her afterward as "the woman." The comedian Lenny Bruce once pointed out that there were a lot of churches and denominations in the world, but Catholicism was the only "the" religion -- there was only one "the Church."
These attributes of the definite article come to mind because, judging from the evidence on the airwaves and the printed page, the word "the" has begun to flourish in a new semantic niche: in front of the word "culture." We all know what culture without an article is. It can refer to any product of human fabrication (stone tools, the Venus de Milo, Rhapsody in Blue, paintings on velvet) or to the folkways of a localized anthropological milieu (Samoa, the San Fernando Valley, Microsoft). But the term "the culture" connotes something bigger and broader than all these others. "The culture" is imposing and autonomous, and implicated in just about everything.
The moderator of the National Public Radio program On the Media not long ago began by matter-of-factly lamenting a "coarsening of the culture." A headline on an article in WebMD Medical News declares, "Teen Binge Drinking Starts Early, With Help From the Culture." The actor and writer Eric Bogosian comments, "I think the level of irony and aggression has become just so absorbed in the culture that me throwing myself around out there doesn't rub people as wrong as it used to." A Detroit columnist describes guns as "embedded in the culture, like strip malls and cheeseburgers." A vice-president of the Southern Baptist Convention speaks of the need for members of his denomination to remain engaged "in the debates that are going on in the culture." The publisher Victor Navasky, recalling his education in a politically radical experimental school in the 1940s, declares, "We were outsiders in the culture."
The references sometimes get a little confusing, because "the culture" that different writers cite isn't always the same one. William McGurn, of The Wall Street Journal, is conjuring something elitist, leftist, modernist, and in control of all news, entertainment, and advertising when he spells it "the Kultur" and writes, "The Kultur's painting of Southern evangelicals as closet Klansmen is a vicious caricature." Brent Staples, writing in The New York Times earlier this year about a rampage of sexual harassment that occurred in Central Park, had a different, retrograde "the culture" in mind when he subtitled his editorial-page commentary "How the culture normalizes sexual harassment and abuse."