Thursday, November 8, 2007

in the light of

As someone who has used the phrase "in light of" his whole life, I was a little surprised to come across the variant "in the light of" the other day. I think it was in one of my students' papers, so I didn't really give it much thought, just corrected it and moved on. However, I found another instance of it today in Geoffrey Poole's Syntactic Theory. He, too, uses "in the light of," and I reasonably sure he's a native speaker (I would imagine writing a book on syntax in English would be rather difficult otherwise). So obviously it's not just a mistake; people say this.

What I'm puzzling over is whether they're way is "correct" or not. Obviously we don't talk much about what is "correct" in descriptive linguistics, so by correct I mean the original historical phrase. Where is this phantom article coming from? For me this is an idiomatic phrase. While I can understand what it means by looking at its constituents, really I don't break it down linguistically when I use it. I'm not thinking of knowledge shedding light on some topic, I'm just thinking "in light of" = "given this evidence." It could be that for some people who do a little less reanalysis, the article makes more sense, whether it was there to begin with or not. Wiktionary lists "in light of" but not "in the light of," though I can't really say that proves anything. Still, we could theoretically take that as showing the statistical preponderance of the version without the article: the fact that someone took the time to make a page for that version and not the arthrous one means its likely that more people use that anarthrous version.


Alex said...

I've never heard the, um, non-anarthrous version, though in the light of the fact that I don't know what that word means, I wouldn't trust myself to comment.

Mom said...

I haven't checked the dictionary, but I'm going to venture a guess that this may be a British English usage whereas "in light of" is American. Poole appears not to be American and I'm guessing that your student first studied British English. Check it out.

I've run across other examples over the years, particularly with two-word verbs or idioms.

Burdette said...

People should read this.

Voter X said...

In South Africa, and reading mainly Britsih English books. I have never come across "in light of" until quite recently. With the article seems to have been standard non-American for a long time, and the version without the article has only become common outside North America in the last decade or so -- owing to American influence in academic textbooks, and perhaps Time and Newsweek and, of course, almost certainly mainly the Internet.