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I have the following sentence in the beginning of a chapter:

This chapter lays down the fundamentals of distributed processing. It provides the basics for data processing...

I would like to ask why I need to have "the" before "fundamentals" and "basics".

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

You probably know that the is used before a noun in situations where both writer and reader, or speaker and listener, know what is being referred to. That is often the case when the noun has already been mentioned. The use of the in your example is probably best explained in the words of the ‘Cambridge Grammar of English’ by Carter and McCarthy:

The is most commonly used to refer to things which are part of the speakers’ shared world. It is a way of saying ‘You know which x I am referring to.’

The fundamentals and the basics refer to a category of things that everyone knows about, even though they may not previously have occurred in the text. Other such words are the essentials, the rudiments, the contents, the rules, the orders and no doubt many more.

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Good point about the usually occurring on a previously mentioned noun. Definiteness is a good clue when analysing a text for antecedent/anaphor resolution that you’ve come to noun phrase that refers back to an earlier one in the discourse. Not always, of course, but it’s often so. First mentions are often not definite, while later ones often are. – tchrist Jan 28 '12 at 17:13

Without the articles, one could infer the chapter only lays down some fundamentals and provides some basics. The author wishes to emphasize that all the fundamentals and all the basics are covered. By using "the" s/he suggests that fundamentals and basics are sets, and s/he will be supplying each complete set.

For example, if I say

I am getting groceries tonight.

I may be picking up milk and eggs but not fruit, whereas

I am getting the groceries tonight.

indicates I am getting all the groceries I plan to get.

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