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I'm helping someone learn English (second language), and I'm having trouble explaining when to use the and when not to. For example:

Students learn better when teachers are passionate about teaching.

versus

The students learn better when the teachers are passionate about teaching.

There's a subtle difference. The first one is a general statement, whereas the second might imply a study where a group of students learned better than another.

Is the difference simply that, general v. specific?

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No. There is no single, simple rule for article use. There are dozens of specialized idiomatic uses. Making generic statements using generic noun phrases, as in the sentences above, is one idiomatic use, for instance. –  John Lawler May 20 '13 at 17:06
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There is a monograph in the Collins Cobuild grammar series dealing purely with the usages of articles. About 100 pages long. –  Edwin Ashworth May 20 '13 at 17:40
    
I see. Well, at least now I don't feel so inadequate for not being able to come up with the rule earlier. –  MPelletier May 20 '13 at 18:22
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I would consider losing the word "their" in both sentences, so as to avoid confusion concerning whose work you are referring to: the teachers' or the students'. Example: Students learn better when teachers are passionate about teaching. –  rhetorician May 21 '13 at 1:57
    
@rhetorician You are correct. It's just an example I made up, but you make a strong argument that it's an imperfect one. –  MPelletier May 21 '13 at 2:53
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2 Answers

Is the difference simply that, general v. specific?

No, but it is the starting point for teaching English as a foreign language.

I suggest starting out with only general vs. specific usage, and then adding other rules bit by bit (giving precedence to those most used):

  1. general vs. specific
  2. always before ordinal numbers (but never with possessives)
  3. always before superlatives (but never with possessives)
  4. always before river names etc.

The point is to avoid drowning the learner in rules, thus only giving more rules when the previous are understood and assimilated. I recommend getting a list of rules from a good grammar book and choosing the ones more relevant for the learner's level.


Omitting article “the” in front of plural nouns

It seems I missed the 'question' in the title and answered only the last one.

'The' isn't used with plurals when that plural implies a general reference, only when that plural implies a specific group.

So...

Students learn better when teachers are passionate about teaching.

is the equivalent to: "Any student learns better when any teacher is passionate about teaching."

Whereas...

The students learn better when the teachers are passionate about teaching.

implies that you're not talking about students in general but a particular group, for example those who study in a certain school or at a certain level; and the same goes for the teachers: you don't mean teachers in general.

Conclusion: Without a context that clarifies whether the sentence relates to a specific group of students/teachers, the first sentence (zero article) is preferred.

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Can you make this more specific with respect to the article 'the' and plurals? As is, this answer works for every question on this site! –  Mitch Jun 9 '13 at 13:54
    
But make sure the learner knows that they will have to drown in constructions and idioms, which have to be memorized as formulas and used in very specific patterns. –  John Lawler Jun 9 '13 at 15:04
    
@JohnLawler: I'd rather not frighten the learners with drowning. They have bad enough reactions to the word 'grammar'. :) –  Sara Costa Jun 9 '13 at 18:26
    
That's probably because some people still believe that grammar is something to put people down with instead of something to figure out, like algebra. The truth about English grammar is extremely complex, and none of it is in the Anglophone curriculum. So we're mostly pretty clueless about grammar, and often anxious about that. –  John Lawler Jun 9 '13 at 18:38
    
In Portugal, we're coming out of a long tradition of learning foreign languages based on grammar and reading only (didn't help one's speaking skills at all), so lots of people still think that if you're learning grammar, even in conjunction with speaking practice, then you aren't learning how to speak. O_o –  Sara Costa Jun 9 '13 at 18:42
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Yes, you are right that the difference between your two example sentences is simply one of generality vs. specificity. And this is a useful rule for a beginner to know when using plural nouns.

Of course, it is not completely straightforward: the learner has to decide whether to use a singular or plural noun in the first place. Furthermore, it is not always obvious whether the group of things being referred to is the full set or a specific subset. And later the learner will find out that the definite article is used in front of adjectival nouns representing the full set (the rich, the unemployed, etc.) and often in front of nation groups (the British are always taking about the weather; (the) Germans are reputed to have no sense of humour).

Nevertheless, while the choice of the correct article (or none) for singular nouns is complex, this rule about plural nouns is simple and worth learning.

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