"the wife" instead of "my wife", are there any other contexts where a possessive pronoun gets replaced by a definite article?

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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?

gerrit

Posted 2013-02-11T11:05:45.117

Reputation: 4 467

Answers

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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.

Matt Ellen

Posted 2013-02-11T11:05:45.117

Reputation: 2 467

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 – 2013-05-26T08:31:54.767

Does the old lady refer to the speakers' mother? – gerrit – 2013-02-11T12:29:54.893

@gerrit: no, it refers to one's female partner. – Steve Melnikoff – 2013-02-11T12:51:18.647

the old lady is the speeaker's wife, my old lady can be either the wife or the mother. – Matt Ellen – 2013-02-11T12:51:58.033

3However my old man means father, and it is a phrase usually (almost exclusively?) used by males. – Kaz – 2013-02-11T16:27:28.720

@Matt Ellen: "Late last night, I heard the screen door slam. And a big yellow taxi came and took away my old man..." Joni Mitchell, a woman, was definitely not referring to her father in these lyrics. My guess is that when used by men, "my/the old man" usually means "father;" and when used by women, it usually means "boyfriend/husband/male significant other" - but it will always be highly context dependent. – Evelyn – 2015-03-17T15:16:04.990

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.

Barrie England

Posted 2013-02-11T11:05:45.117

Reputation: 7 553

3As 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. – 2013-02-11T12:52:02.013

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 – 2013-02-11T13:02:50.987

@kojiro. To clarify, then, only modifies in certain contexts and not British English. – Barrie England – 2013-02-11T13:19:52.460

@J.R. True, but not, I think, with the same overtones. – Barrie England – 2013-02-11T13:21:14.910

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. – 2013-02-11T15:18:52.460

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 – 2013-02-11T15:27:47.493

@kojiro: I must relate an epilogue here. Just hours after you replied to me, I received an email from a friend of mine. He wrote "...and the wife and I will leave on Thursday..." I know he thinks the world of his wife, and he would never use such a term in a derogatory fashion, so you were right on the mark when you told how whether or not one might interpret the expression would rely much on personal bias, preference, and intent. – J.R. – 2013-02-11T23:23:41.337

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 – 2014-09-17T18:20:48.520

@j.r. I think most women would be more annoyed if you DIDN'T check with the wife before changing plans that involved her ... – Jay – 2015-01-30T14:53:49.813

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.

kiamlaluno

Posted 2013-02-11T11:05:45.117

Reputation: 20 456

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.

Jay

Posted 2013-02-11T11:05:45.117

Reputation: 51 729

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 – 2015-01-31T06:08:38.173

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 – 2015-03-17T15:35:39.560