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As far as I know, “same” and “identical” have identical meaning. Why is one used with “the” and one without “the”?

I can argue that “same” should always have “the”: When thing 2 is the same as thing 1, they are actually just one thing. So only one thing is the same as thing 1, i. e. thing 1. So “the same as thing 1” refers to a unique thing, and expressions for unique things should have the definite article. But the same can be said about “identical”.

  • I saw one green Ferrari yesterday and one green Ferrari today.
  • These Ferraris are the same.
    ¿“These Ferraris are the identical.”?

I can argue that “identical” may be without “the”: “identical” is an adjective, so it does not add any requirements for an article if it is added to an expression. A plural noun may have no article, so also a plural noun with an adjective in front may have no article. Also, an adjective may be used with no article after “is” to describe the subject. But the same can be said about “same”.

  • These two Volkswagens are blue.
  • These two Ferraris are identical.
    ¿“These two Ferraris are same.”?

I think that, because “same” and “identical” have the same meaning and grammatical category, there should be no difference in using articles with one or the other. But there is a difference. Why is it so?

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They do not have the same grammatical category. Same can be an adjective, like identical. But when it is used with the and no following noun phrase, it is a noun (or a pronoun, depending on your analysis).

A deeper answer is that your assumption that two words with the same grammatical category and close meaning must have the same grammar. But this is not so. Consider eat and dine: they're both verbs, their meanings are close; but eat is transitive or intransitive, whereas dine is only intransitive. This means that, even in contexts where their meaning is effectively identical, you can't necessarily interchange them.

As another example, consider must and have to: they are both auxiliaries, with similar meaning. But the modal must is defective: it lacks some verbal forms (such as an infinitive) while have to does not.

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