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The Don’t Ask and The Don’t Tell

December 20, 2010

When is a “the” more than just a “the”—as in, the gays? Now that the congressional barrier to open service by LGBT members is gone, we’re faced with how we can best and most effectively integrate the US military across sexuality lines.  Just prior to the Senate vote, Anne Coulter penned a criticism of the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,” and there’s a lot going on in the article: frequent use of scare quotes to question the truthfulness of opponents, equating femininity with homosexuality (both allegedly equally bad in a military context), and gay stereotypes–she even manages to make a reference to choreographing show-tunes.

However, I find her first move the most interesting: she uses the definite article “the” to refer to gays: “Instead of asking whether the troops support repeal of DADT, the Pentagon asked only if they can learn to play nice with the gays,” and then later “Frankly, it’s appalling the Pentagon’s poll of all military personnel and their families didn’t produce better numbers for the gays” (italics added; interestingly, many posted comments from readers repeat her syntax).

I find the use of the definite article “the” for mass nouns an intriguing syntax choice.  Mass nouns are general things like salt; count nouns are specific, unitized things like chickens (which one must not count prematurely).  We tend to use the definite article with mass nouns to refer to a specific subset to get something done; “Pass the salt” would get us any shaker at the holiday table. I first paid attention to this choice when hearing rural/older Southern American English speakers in the Carolinas talk about “the drugs.”  It’s a syntactic choice that takes something general, or massed (“drugs,” or for Coulter “gays”) and makes it specific and bounded.

In Coulter’s usage, it makes a general, mass count category something particular, definite.  Gays can be anywhere (and more disturbingly, everyone), whereas the gays are bounded, discrete—you can point to “the gays” over there: a visible, definite group that can be characterized, judged and objected to.  It creates distance between the gays and the author, and by extension the reader.

I find this move by Coulter a problem because it makes my fellows distant, and objectifies human beings I have solidarity with. It’s also a problem because it obscures an import argument: fears among military combat arms that homosocial love bonds of cohesion (their most precious resource) will be confused or damaged by the introduction of open homosexuality.  She touches on this momentarily, but it’s drowned in her overall vituperation:  “Military combat is a very specialized field comparable to nothing in civilian life. There has to be a special bond among warriors — and only one kind of bond. The soldierly bond gets confused if some guys think their comrades are hot or if they suspect their superior is having a relationship with a fellow soldier.”

Whether or not this is a realistic concern is not as important as listening to and taking seriously the interest stake behind the concern.  Until military combat arms leaders feel their concerns are taken seriously, they’ll be reluctant to sit down with willing hearts to plan for effective integration of the services.  People like Ms. Coulter hurt that process by diverting the conversation from substantive areas of disagreement to insult and degradation of people she scorns.

If you want to know more:

  • For more on how the definite article is used, please see Birner & Ward (1994),  “Uniqueness, Familiarity and the Definite Article in English.”

William Marcellino is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara Johnstone permalink
    December 21, 2010 9:48 am

    I would say “the gays” was a collective noun (or, more strictly speaking, a noun phrase referring to a collective), not a mass noun. Nouns being used in a mass-noun sense don’t have plural forms — cf. “milk” vs. “two milks” as in a restaurant order. But whatever terminology you use, you make a good point here. I have been known to do this with “the fundamentalists.” Would I be the first person to claim that Anne Coulter does not know what she is talking about? 🙂

  2. Doug Cloud permalink*
    December 21, 2010 10:17 am

    Great work Bill. I hope you keep writing for THE Silver Tongue!

  3. Linda Flower permalink
    December 29, 2010 9:25 am

    Bill, i really like the way you reframe the issue from what “the gays” do to what different members of their cohort (leaders, other men (?other women?) do to deal with the need to clarify the nature of the bonds. That is a fascinating, and in fact, rather rhetorical, interpretive problem. Which looks like it would be an even greater problem is if goes un-articulated as question or issue to be discussed. Is that the sort of outcome you hand in mind, in re-defining the issue? linda

  4. Daniel Dickson-LaPrade permalink
    January 14, 2011 4:10 pm

    I have heard arguments about count vs. mass nouns. John R. Taylor in the textbook “Cognitive Grammar” suggests that there are singular and plural mass nouns, with examples of the latter including things like “supplies,” “groceries,” “leftovers,” “contents,” “valuables,” etc. (pp. 367ff). Taylor’s way of defining mass nouns is in terms of “internal homogeneity,” “divisibility,” “replicability,” and “inherent boundedness” (p. 367). If we follow Taylor, I think that “the gays” would be a plural mass noun–though as Taylor notes, the mass-count distinction can also be a matter of degree or context, as with “more car for your dollar” and “that house has a lot of lawn out front.”

    It’s funny how “the internets” compares with “the gays,” “the fundamentalists,” and even contentious nouns/noun phrases like “the Cloward-Piven strategy,” “the gay agenda,” and “the theocratic wing-nuts.”

  5. Bill Marcellino permalink
    February 13, 2011 7:08 am

    Weird–I got an email right when Barbara posted, but I got an email about Daniel and Linda’s comments like 10 days ago. Thanks for the feedback/corrections 🙂


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