The definite article in certain English phrases

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Athaulf, Dec 6, 2006.

  1. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    In English phrases that follow certain patterns, I find it impossible to find any regularity in the usage of the definite article. I'll give an example in this post, hoping that someone might perhaps enlighten me about this problem.

    I have noticed that in phrases that follow the pattern "last year's <noun>," the native speakers never use the definite article in front of "last." For example, the construct "the last year's winner" would sound definitely wrong. However, the definite article is normally used in front of phrases that follow the very similar pattern "previous year's <noun>" -- for example, "the previous year's winner" sounds perfectly right. A Google search for each of these phrases with and without the definite article confirms my observations.

    So, what would be the relevant difference between these phrases? The standard sets of prescriptive rules for article usage suggest that both phrases should be preceded by the definite article, since each one represents a definite reference to a singular noun -- but apparently this is not the case in practice.

    There are many other cases similar to this one. For example, "the" often stands in front of nouns qualified by "previous" -- but never in front of those qualified by "yesterday's."

    Am I ignorant about some general rule that holds in these cases, or am I perhaps failing to understand the proper application of the well-known standard rules here? Or must one really memorize the usage of articles in all such phrases on a case-by-case basis?

    Thanks in advance for your replies.
  2. I believe you must memorize. In some instances, it is futile to try and make a logic for a way an expression is said. I believe this is one of those cases.

    Correct me if I'm wrong.
  3. Welcome to WR forums, Athaulf. :)

    Yes, you will need to memorise.

    When you mention "last year's" it is understood that you are referring to last year (2005).

    If you were to say "the last year's" it would give the impression that the Earth no longer existed and that you were a disembodied voice, floating in the ether, talking of the last year of the Earth's life. ;)

    Kind regards,
  4. Dimcl Senior Member

    British Columbia, Canada
    Canadian English
    I'm going to take a stab at this by saying that the word "last" in this context means "most recent". Accordingly, the definite article is not required. One could say "the most recent year" (or "the previous year's winner" as you've stated) but "last year" precludes the requirement for the definite article. "Previous year's winner" doesn't clarify what we mean without "the" because "previous" doesn't mean "most recent". We could be talking about a previous year's winner a decade ago. That's my take on it.:)
  5. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
    An interesting point and I think I have to agree with both Her Majesty and Dimcl.
  6. LouisaB Senior Member

    English, UK
    Hi, Athaulf, and welcome to Word Reference.

    After much head-scratching, I've come to the conclusion there is a kind of rule here, but it may not be much help.

    Certain terms used to describe specific units of time have acquired the usage of proper nouns, and as such require no article:
    Yesterday, today, tomorrow (There was an article in both 'today' and 'tomorrow' but it was lost in the contraction of 'the day' to 'today', and 'the morrow' to 'tomorrow').
    Last year, this year and next year have somehow fallen into this category, almost as if each phrase were written as one word.

    The way to tell if a phrase falls into this category is to see if you can start a sentence with it on its own, eg

    Yesterday we went swimming.:tick:
    Today we're going skating.:tick:
    Tomorrow we're going to the hospital.:tick:
    Previous day we did nothing.:cross:
    Last year we went to Greece.:tick:
    This year we're going to the Caribbean.:tick:
    Next year we'll be bankrupt.:tick:
    Previous year we did nothing.:cross:

    'Previous year' is not a recognised time phrase on its own. It's therefore simply a standard adjective plus noun, and as such requires an article.

    As I say, this doesn't help much, as it's really only an extension of your own observation, but at least it provides a rule-of-thumb test.

  7. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    ... last year ...
    Without the article, this refers to the year before the current year.
    Last means - the one before this one.
    If I said it today, it would refer to 2005.
    Last year I went to Stresa.

    ... the last year ...
    With the article, this refers to the last year in a period of years that has already been defined.
    Last means - the final one in a series.
    We are working on a ten-year project. In the last year we expect to ....

    Previous cannot be used alone. "... the previous year ..." has meaning only with reference to a year already defined. Previous year on its own means nothing.

    You might see a pattern here.
    It is a pattern of the use of the definite article that should be familiar to you.
  8. I don't want to complicate things further, but...

    It could be said: "In previous years, this person had a completely different attitude." Meaning more than one year in the past. In fact, all years before.
  9. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Thanks to everyone for their welcomes and replies.

    Two posters -- la reine Victoria and Panjandrum -- have argued (to the best of my understanding) that the phrase "last year" changes its meaning when preceded by the definite article, i.e. that "the last year" doesn't refer to the year before the current one, but rather the final year in some sequence of years. However, I have seen many examples of "the last year," with the definite article, being used with the former meaning. For example, one often hears politicians and journalists emphasizing that some statistical figures changed so much "in the last year alone," obviously having in mind the year before the current one. On rarely, if ever, hears this particular phrase without the article.

    Some other phrases in which "last year" is used with the same meaning are different. For example, saying "until last year" is more common than "until the last year" when the "last year" means the one preceding the current one.

    Again, I fail to see any meaningful difference that could influence the rules for choosing the article here. Is there some subtle difference in the meaning of "last year" in the two phrases mentioned above that I'm unable to detect?
  10. The use of until last year is like the usage of last year and the last year. The last year doesn't exist, but last year does. Until last year means Until the year before the current one.
  11. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
    "in the last year alone," means during the past year and is quite different from making a reference to the year itself.
  12. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    LouisaB's reply is also very interesting -- I wasn't aware of the history of this category of terms. However, it seems to me that "last year" hasn't really (yet?) become a "true" member of this category, since in some frequently used phrases, it can still take a definitive article without change in meaning. The best example would probably be "in the last year alone," which I mentioned in my post above. Or is this counterexample wrong for some reason?
  13. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Could you (or someone else) please elaborate on this? I'm not aware of what should be the relevant difference here.
  14. LouisaB Senior Member

    English, UK
    I think the counter-example is actually wrong, because there is a change of meaning when the article is added. 'The last year' does not mean 'the name we give to the last calendar year, ie 2005'. It means 'the last twelve months, ie counting backwards from today'. If you'd said it on May 15th 2006, you would mean 'in the period May 16th 2005 to May 15th 2006'.
    'Alone' can be used with it, as you say, to stress how much has happened within a short space of time.

    We use the phrase for other units of time too, eg
    'My phone has run four times in the last five minutes'.
    'We've had three burglaries in the last month' (ie from 8th November to 7th December)

    So I think the rule still holds. In the category I was describing, the terms are all used like names or titles, because they could effectively be replaced by them (eg 'yesterday' means 'Wednesday', 'last year' means '2005', 'last month' means November). It's true there's no actual names given to weeks of the year, but 'last week' still refers to a specific week (in UK business, we'd call it 'week 48'). Because they're like names, no article is used.

    'The last year', 'the last month' etc are not being used as names, but as units to measure a time span. There is no name for 'Feb 17th 2005-Feb 16th 2006', or Jan 11th-Feb 10th, or a week which runs from Thursday to Wednesday.

    Does that help at all, or does it make it worse?

  15. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Actually, now that you've spelled it out, your explanation makes perfect sense to me. Thanks for your help!
  16. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
    I think LoiusaB's explanation ties in with my thread and requires no further comment from me. Am I right, Athaulf?
  17. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Yes, it's clear to me now. Thanks.

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