Is This Really the Most Powerful Word in the English Language?

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A recent BBC article, “Is this the most powerful word in the English language,” made a bold, sweeping claim: that the word “the” is the one word that not only shapes the meaning of a sentence but also seemingly shapes everything we know about the language itself.

At least, this is what I take from Hélène Schumacher’s piece.

Do I see where they’re coming from? Yes, of course. I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t understand the impact even mundane words have (when used appropriately). And while I generally refrain from questioning the expertise of those with more credentials than me, I am a person with an opinion – just like the writer themselves.

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You see, it’s not so much that I disagree with the premise of their statement. It’s mainly just that it seems a bit shortsighted.

“Consider the difference between ‘he scored a goal’ and ‘he scored the goal’,” Schumacher explains. “The inclusion of ‘the’ immediately signals something important about that goal. Perhaps it was the only one of the match? Or maybe it was the clincher that won the league? Context very often determines sense.”

While this is all well and good, my personal view is that the words “and” and “or” deserve top honour as the most powerful words in the English language. Since much of what the author offers as proof of the power of “the” is really based in its functionality – giving a clearer understanding of whether an object is one thing or if it’s the thing itself, for example – I would counter that with “and” and “or” having even more power.

For starters, consider this sentence: “John has an orange.” He has one orange. It’s not that much, really. Now add “and,” followed by another item. As an example, “John has an orange and an apple.” Obviously he now has two fruits, as opposed to the one he had in the beginning.

But if we replace “and” with the word “or,” things start to get interesting. Why does he have only one of those two fruits? The gears in my writer’s head start turning it’s phrased as a question (“Does John have an orange or an apple?”). Why does he only have the one he has? What led to this sort of outcome?

The list goes on and on, and I think it speaks more to the complexity of a language when more evocative common words are considered more powerful than one merely based around functionality. In a way, this would be like saying the most interesting chord is a C or a D.

I think it’s easy to want to make such a bold claim, and clearly words that aren’t as common as “the” aren’t going to be the most powerful. As the writer, Michael Rosen says in the article, “Power in language comes from context.”

I would agree with this, entirely. Sometimes you need an extremely vivid, multisyllabic word to capture the mood, action, or emotion in a scene or a stanza. However, use too many, and your writing becomes pretentious and inaccessible to most people. You have to know when to go for the complex and when to keep it simple. It helps to alternate between the types of words used when it all comes down to it.

Much of it lies with the audience and the format of any given medium. If this were a mainstream newspaper – whose goal isn’t to utilize embellishment or have a grilling plot, but is simply to tell the news and get to the meat of whatever’s happening in your world or neighbourhood – I wouldn’t write the way I am for this blog.

That said, it does make some sense Schumacher would pick that word. It was an informed opinion, as experts were interviewed and proof was offered. And there is a certain level of oomph to this very simple, lacklustre word. It’s just that a large part of me feels it’s too low to aim as far as finding a word considered “powerful,” and it certainly doesn’t seem like the right choice for a winner.

But then, stranger things have happened. They give awards to musicians, artists, scientists, and athletes who we would never have thought deserved the win. At least in the field of music, this happens more often than you might first think. But, unlike these fields, language doesn’t change that often. Definitely not the core, established words that comprise a language.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong here, but “the” just doesn’t feel like the right choice for the most powerful word in the entire English language.

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