What is the function of the definite article in the noun phrase "the commodity" in the phrase "the theory of the commodity"? What is the difference between the phrase with the definite article and the phrase with no article ("the theory of the commodity" vs. "the theory of commodity")?

  • I don't understand how there could be a theory of either! Do you mean "The theory of commodities"? Dec 13, 2019 at 9:16
  • @OldBrixtonian "With few exceptions, the theory of the commodity has not been independently treated by English, French, and Italian writers" in "Principles of Economics" by Carl Menger.
    – piter00
    Dec 13, 2019 at 9:23

1 Answer 1


Truly an excellent question that probes the complexity of the English article, which, as you know is of two types, the definite article the and the indefinite articles a/an. The former comes to us directly from the Old English demonstrative pronoun and article and is thus a very old word, present in the language going back a thousand years. It thus has had a long time to adopt a variety of idiomatic meanings that vary with the number and countability of the nouns it modifies.

When attached to a singular noun, the can mean a particular member of the class identified by the noun. Thus when you say

[1] Yesterday, I bought the commodity with the lowest price.

we can consult prices on the commodity exchange to find the one with the lowest price and know which one particular commodity you bought, be it copper or wheat. This is what the OED calls the "regular usage."

But when the modifies a singular noun, it can also have a metaphorical usage which interprets the noun as a representative of the entire class identified by the noun. This occurs in the phrase you question, a phrase that often appears in discussions of Marxism, as in

[2a] Marx derives the money form of value from the theory of the commodity.

Here the theory is the economic framework involving all commodities, i.e., things of value in trade, and in this sense means the same thing as

[2b] Marx derives the money form of value from the theory of commodities.

Notice the missing article in 2b: the representative meaning of the definite article is not available for plural countable nouns. If you say

[2c] Marx derives the money form of value from the theory of the commodities.

the thought is incomplete because the specific commodities are undefined. You'll need something like

[2d] Marx derives the money form of value from the theory of the commodities common in 19-th century commerce.

Now, why don't we see the phrasing with the article missing before the singular commodity?

*[2e] Marx derives the money form of value from the theory of {} commodity.

where the empty braces indicate the place where an article might have been inserted.

After all, there's no blanket rule banning this usage. There's no objection to

[2f] I have a theory of {} beer: more is better than less.

(Or at least no grammatical objection.) Without an article, the word beer is understood to be noncountable, i.e, it's just all the liquid beverage under consideration, and we don't count a liquid the way we do bottles of that liquid. So if for beer, why not for commodity? Demonstrating the reasoning behind idiomatic usage is difficult, so take the following for what it's worth. Beer is a beer is just beer, but the word commodity is different. It once had the (noncountable) meanings of convenience or benefit. According to the OED these have gone unused for about 150 years, which means they were still in use during Marx' lifetime. Thus back in the day, the "theory of commodity" wouldn't have been a theory of economic items at all, it would have been a theory of convenience. And when that usage fell out of favor, commodity lost its noncountable meanings and picked up its affinity for a preceding article.

Do not be tempted to draw a lesson from this. English articles will not be governed by simple rules, as I will attempt to illustrate.

One idiomatic use of the was its conjunction with disease, so people used to say

[3a] He was afflicted with the dropsy.

We mostly discard the article how although babies still get the croup and those in the US south still get the vapors. The article also survives in medical literature to describe some syndromes, i.e., collections of symptoms that were once thought to be a single disease but are now understood as arising from various, different pathologies.

Note the 1997 book by Hazel E Nelson

[3b-1] Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with {} Schizophrenia (article absent, singular noun)

From In the Shadow of Our Steeples by Stewart Delisle Govig (1999):

[3b-2] Together we can move on to advocate acceptance and better attitudes about neighbors struggling with clinical depressions, {} schizophrenias, and bipolar disorders. (article absent, plural noun)

From a syllabus by Bonny Banerjee, Ph.D. for her spring 2012 course at the University of Memphis (Tennessee, USA):

[3b-3] Although there is consensus that brain/neurotransmitter dysfunction (particularly that of dopamine and glutamate systems among others) is associated with this disorder, the etiology of the schizophrenia is poorly understood. (article present, singular noun. Note that this is the singular representing the whole, different from attributive uses like "the schizophrenia scale" or individual characterizing uses like "the schizophrenia of the patient)

From Transactions of the Research Conference on Chemotherapy in Psychiatry (1960):

[3b-4] This symposium deals with perhaps the most pressing problem facing investigators of the schizophrenias. (article present, plural noun)

So, all four combinations for schizophrenia. But to emphasize the fact that idiom arises from usage, note that the metaphorical use of the with diseases is not available for the one caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. This is the Black Death, the Great Plague, or just the plague. The definite article here will always refer to the 14th century scourge that killed at least one-third of Europe's population.

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