21

In English, one occasionally sees a replacement of my wife by the wife, such as in this sentence:

there was a sudden thud and I joked to the wife that someone had run into us

  • Does this construction occur for any other words than wife? The husband? The mother? Of course in many contexts it can (The car, The child, etc.), but I have the impression that in the context above, it's somehow a special idiom. Is it?
  • Does the meaning of a sentence change by replacing my wife by the wife?
  • Can the wife replace only my wife, or also your/his/her wife or even their/your/our wives?
  • Are there any rules I should be aware of for this construct?
19

Using the instead of my in "the wife" does subtly change the meaning of a sentence it's used in.

Assuming the woman in question is the wife of the speaker, compare

It's my wife on the phone.

to

It's the wife on the phone.

Using the instead of my puts a bit of social distance between the speaker and their wife. Even if the listener knows that the speaker is talking to the speaker's wife, the use of the decouples the couple.

Using the wife when talking about someone else's wife is possible, but is different in meaning. In this context you can use the wife to mean his wife, her wife, their wife or their wives, i.e. it can only apply to a third person pronoun.

Imagine A is on the phone and B wants to know who A is talking to:

B: Are you talking to the husband?
A: No, it's the wife.

So A is talking to the wife of the couple they are interested in.

The wife would not work if someone's name was used:

B: Are you talking to Mr. Jenkins?
A: No, it's the wife.

Here the wife would be taken to mean A's wife, rather than Mr. Jenkin's wife, although it is possible that there might be confusion as to what A means.

As Barrie England points out, you can also use the wife to mean your wife as in "How is the wife." I agree with him that this is only something that would be done if you are sure your remark won't be taken as an insult.

Other constructs that are similar:

  • Female
    • The wife (fiancée, girlfriend)
    • The old lady (and other such euphemisms for wife, "the ball and chain", etc.)
    • The mother in law
  • Male
    • The husband (fiance, boyfriend)
    • The old man (and other such euphemisms for husband)
    • The father in law

The pattern is that someone uses the in place of my when they are married to or related by marriage to someone and don't like, or are pretending not to like, the person in question.

  • Does the old lady refer to the speakers' mother? – gerrit Feb 11 '13 at 12:29
  • @gerrit: no, it refers to one's female partner. – Steve Melnikoff Feb 11 '13 at 12:51
  • the old lady is the speeaker's wife, my old lady can be either the wife or the mother. – Matt Ellen Feb 11 '13 at 12:51
  • 3
    However my old man means father, and it is a phrase usually (almost exclusively?) used by males. – Kaz Feb 11 '13 at 16:27
  • Also, "the in-laws" is used in this form, in the way described, for parents of oneself or of one's/the partner when in a marriage relationship. It is particularly useful when it doesn't matter if you specify that it was "my wife's in-laws" or "both of our in-laws" or "my in-laws through my now ex-wife". "'my husband and I's in-laws' ... wait I mean 'me and my husband's in-laws' ... etc. – Xantix May 26 '13 at 8:31
8

The wife is found in British English only in certain contexts and only in the speech of certain speakers. It would typically be used by one man speaking to another, and it is generally a working class, or lower middle class, expression. Many women will regard it as derogatory.

To answer your specific questions, no, the doesn’t occur in this way before the names of other family members. It doesn’t change the meaning, but it expresses a certain attitude, perhaps one ironic of tolerance and inevitability, towards the married state. It normally replaces only my wife, but you might hear things like 'How's the wife?'. Probably the only rule you should be aware of is not to use it unless you are very, very sure that it will be received positively. It is something which I can imagine only very few non-native speakers ever saying.

  • 3
    As for using this technique with other family members, there might be some exceptions. While it's true that I have a hard time imagining myself asking someone, "How's the son?" or, "How's the daughter?" (I'm pretty sure I'd use "your" instead of "the"), it's not a stretch to imagine me asking, "How are the kids?" – J.R. Feb 11 '13 at 12:52
  • This answer is misleading in that it implies that "the wife" is used only in British English. It is used in American English, too, and as far as I know, considered informal, but not derogatory. – kojiro Feb 11 '13 at 13:02
  • 2
    @kojiro: I think some American wives might find the usage somewhat derogatory, too, depending on who said it, and how and why that particular wording was used. If polled, I doubt my wife would have a problem with one of my friends posing the rather informal question, "How's the wife?", but I don't imagine she'd be particularly thrilled if, while talking about a spur-of-the-moment change of plans, I announced, "Let me check with the wife first." – J.R. Feb 11 '13 at 15:18
  • 1
    @J.R. To each her own, I suppose. I would be surprised if my wife would mind the latter. Anyway, OP would be well-advised to take the most formal, polite approach until he is quite sure. – kojiro Feb 11 '13 at 15:27
  • 1
    @J.R.: that's one of those cases where it's more or less impossible to tell whether the usage is ironic or not without knowing the person. Some people will say, "the wife" or "my other half" knowing it to be slightly disrespectful but intending it not as a disrespect but as a familiarity or a mock self-deprecation ("hark at me, using this archaic form even though really you know I'm progressive as anything"). Whether they succeed in their ironic intent is another matter :-) – Steve Jessop Sep 17 '14 at 18:20
4

The can be informally used instead of the possessive when referring to a person with whom the speaker (or the addressed person) is associated.

I am meeting the boss.

How is the family?

I cannot comment about how much times the is used instead of the possessive from native speakers, but as English learner, I would suggest you not to keep using the instead of the possessive. Excessively using an expression is probably one of the mistakes English learners do.
Then, it is an informal usage of the, and it should not be in contexts where a formal sentence should be used.

3

Yes, men sometimes refer to their wives as "the wife" instead of "my wife".

Note you might use the article "the" in front of "wife" as a completely normal use of the article. Like a bank official might say, "Both the husband and the wife must sign the loan papers." Of course here he doesn't mean "my wife", i.e. the wife of the bank official, but rather, the person who, of the couple he is talking to or about, the one who is "the wife" and the one who is "the husband" must sign.

I have never heard a woman call her husband, "the husband". Maybe women say this when talking to each other, but I've never heard it.

Parents will often say "the children" or "the kids" instead of "my children" or "my kids".

Less often, someone will say "the house" instead of "my house". Like, "I've got to stop by THE HOUSE to pick up some papers on the way to this appointment." Similarly people say "the office" for "my office", like, "Even though it's a holiday, I have to go to the office and get this work done."

I'm hard-pressed to think of other examples of using "the" when you really mean "my". "The job" comes up sometimes. Like, "Man, the job is really getting me down."

Of course there are many times when you might use "the" to refer to something that belongs to you (in whatever sense of the possessive), without it really being a substitute for "my". Like if someone said, "I put the chair in the living room", if it's his house and his chair, he might just as well have said, "I put my chair in my living room", but he's not really substituting "the" for "my". He just doesn't find it necessary to specify that he is talking about something that belongs to him in this case.

  • I will often refer to my husband as "the spouse" or "ze spouse" (for a fake accent). However, I have some extremely idiosyncratic speech patterns, and that's one of them. – A.Beth Jan 31 '15 at 6:08
  • Today, I'm planning to put gas in the car, clean the house, water the garden, and feed the cat. Since I would not be expected to do these things for anyone's car, house, garden, or cat, "my" is implied here. By way of contrast: yesterday, I washed all my mother's dishes; I have wash all my dishes today. – Evelyn Mar 17 '15 at 15:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.