Why the Littlest Words Can Mean a Lot

May 30, 2008

Roy Peter Clark has a good column entitled "Why the Littlest Words Can Mean a Lot." In it he talks about the difference between the words "a" and "the" and the impact changing which of these you use can have on the meaning of a statement:

The switch from one to the other can bring dramatic changes in meaning, tone, and reader response. What if the title of the big book and movie had been "Gone with a Wind?"

I remember the day, not long ago, I was preparing to meet with the mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla., with the goal of persuading His Honor to proclaim to the world that we lived in "A City of Writers." But the first time I wrote that phrase it came out "The City of Writers." A friend asked, "Do we want to be 'the city' or 'a city'?" I couldn't decide. I was definitely indefinite. But I knew that the distinction mattered.

... Residents of the Windy City add a regional flavor by sometimes referring to their professional football team as "Da Bears."

... One way to feel the difference between them is to take familiar titles and change one to the other: ... "A Holy Bible"

... Here's the moral of this essay: If you are working inside the language, no decision is too small. The subtlest of changes with the smallest words can create the most dramatic effects.
This is a good reminder for us all. If even small words can make a big difference, then just think about the impact that other words can make.

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