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Definite article with plural nouns

I recently reviewed (as I believe, rather thoroughly) the rules of using articles in English and I do not recall any rule on absence of definitive article THE with plural nouns.

Can you give me a reference on such a rule?


1 Answer 1


Plural nouns with the definite article are, well, definite. Consider

Cats don't like me.


The cats don't like me.

The former implies every cat on Earth doesn't like me; the latter, that some (contextually obvious) specific group of cats don't like me.


In my opinion, yes, unmemorize that reference in your other question and memorize the following:

  • use the definite article with a plural only to denote a known or stated subset of the class ("The elephants [in this zoo] are dangerous"); omit the article for the whole class ("Elephants [all of them] are dangerous").
  • Use an indefinite article with a singular to denote the whole class when you want to emphasize the singular nature ("A glass of wine is healthy, but two can lead to dissolution.")
  • Use the definite article with a singular when referring to a specific instance or when you need, for some reason, to sound like Sir David Attenborough in a BBC nature documentary ("The elephant is a regal creature, reigning over his home, the savanna ...").

Of course, an indefinite article with a plural ("An elephants are dangerous") and omitting articles with the singular of a countable noun ("Elephant is dangerous") are both just wrong, wrong, wrong.


Two years later and I realize another rule: "the" is used to mark adjectives that have been promoted to nouns. When Paul Revere said, "The British are coming", he was referring to the British 10th Regiment of Foot, not to every subject of King George, so the "the" was de rigeur under the above rule.

However, when Quentin Crisp wrote, "The British do not expect happiness,” he did mean every single Briton. The "the" is only necessary to make it clear that the word "British" is being used as a noun. With an ordinary noun, it would be different. "Plumbers [all plumbers] do not expect happiness" but "The plumbers [in London] do not expect happiness."

Compare Jacques Brel's lyric, "The naked and the dead should hold each others' hands" with Dean Wormer's line, "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life." "Naked" and "dead" are nouns (or adjectives being used as nouns); "fat", "drunk", and "stupid" are adjectives, which is why he uses "is" instead of "are": the subject of the verb is "no way".

  • My question is about a rule describing the cases of absence of definite article "the", not cases of its use/presence. Feb 1, 2011 at 8:08
  • Perhaps you could be more specific. How many different "cases" are there? If it isn't there, it isn't there. Feb 1, 2011 at 17:09
  • This is really my question - what is the rule of omitting "the" with plurals? Feb 2, 2011 at 6:55
  • Mmmm, "omit the 'the' when the plural refers to all members of the class, instead of just a specified subset." Feb 2, 2011 at 16:02
  • 3
    +1 Great answer, exposes the rules intuitively, great examples, thanks! Apr 29, 2013 at 9:30

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