Date: Thu, 7 May 1998 13:28:46 -0400
From: Larry Horn

At 11:59 AM -0400 5/7/98, Robert Ness wrote:
>A student of mine writes the following;"She is one of, if not thee main
>character in the novel." The mispelling of the definite pronoun arises
>from its stressed pronounciation, right? What do you make of this? Is the
>stressed THE a survival of the Old English instrumental? I seem to recall
>that the slightly stressed forms in "the sooner, the better" are similarly
>explained, though I cannot imagine what instrumentality is involved.

I think there are a number of issues involved here. The stressed THE in
such contexts as

It's A [ey] reason, if not THE [thi:] reason, she left him.
That's ONE of the reasons, {if not/in fact} THE reason, she left him.
That's one of the worst, if not THE worst, thing(s) you could have done.
That's not just ONE of the problems, it's THE problem with your proposal.

is stressed because it's contrastive within this scalar environment, the
same environment we have in "some if not all", "warm if not hot", etc., in
which the upper-bounding implicature ("some" suggesting not all, "warm" not
hot, "a so-and-so" not the unique so-and-so) is suspended or cancelled.
When THE is stressed (or, of course, when it precedes a vowel-initial
word), it typically rhymes with 'bee', more or less homophonous with the
archaic second-person pronoun, whence presumably your student's nonce
spelling. (Incidentally, your student also uses a non-standard form of the
scalar-implicature-cancelling frame, blending 'one of the main characters,
if not THE main character, in the novel' with 'a, if not THE, main
character in the novel'. This is frequently encountered, and as seen in
the third example above, number is a recurring problem in the a-if-not-the
I don't see any evidence for assuming the persistence of the Old
English instrumental or anything else that abstruse. The syntax doesn't
seem particularly instrumental, anyway. I thought the "the" of the
correlative construction "the sooner the better" was standardly classed as
'adverbial "the"'. Again, there's no obvious connection with the
contrastive scalar "the" in the example under consideration. Indeed, the
adverbial "the" is NOT stressable, and (since it precedes a consonant here)
is NOT pronounced "thee" [thi:], but rather "thuh", with a schwa.