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I was wondering if prepositional phrases alone were strong enough to bring the relative pronoun the before the nouns that they modify.

Upon reading (2) do you feel the people is restricted or specified with the because they are already mentioned before? Or, the sentence (2) standing alone, do you feel the people has the because of in Japan?

  1. People in Japan speak Japanese.

  2. The people in Japan speak Japanese.

Also, do you think my paraphrases are correct (is it wrong to use that are here)?

  1. People in Japan speak Japanese. = People [that are] in Japan speak Japanese. = Probably many but not necessarily all the people [that are] in Japan speak Japanese.

  2. The people in Japan speak Japanese. = The people [that are] in Japan speak Japanese. = All the people [that are] in Japan speak Japanese.

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    ** ** Yes. ** ** Commented Jun 4, 2013 at 2:15
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    These are generic noun phrases. They're nearly identical, but the differences tend to be very specific to the context. Commented Jun 4, 2013 at 2:38
  • People in Japan (interpreted literally) could include visitors in Japan, who may not speak Japanese. What's wrong with (The) Japanese people?
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jun 4, 2013 at 10:40
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    Japanese speak Japanese. French speak French. Spanish speak Spanish. Americans speak American-English. Swedes speak Swedish. Some Belgians speak Flemish. Go figure! Commented Jun 4, 2013 at 12:45
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    @FumbleFingers, asterisks as filler to meet the minimum comment length? You should be ashamed for abusing the system like that. Everyone knows you're supposed to use bananas for this.
    – Ben Lee
    Commented Jun 11, 2013 at 18:40

2 Answers 2

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Consider this pair: "Do people in Japan speak English?" (Yes, there are quite a few.) "Do the people in Japan speak English?" (No, the language of Japan is Japanese.)

English has quite a bit of ambiguity in it. "Speak" can mean either "able to speak" or "habitually speaks" and we choose based on context. Likewise "people" without "the" could mean all of them or it could mean just a subset. We often resolve ambiguity with a sort of internal dialogue where we ask ourselves "why did he/she just say that?" This part of linguistics is called pragmatics. (Pragmatics is the next level above semantics in the semiotic stack.)

So when someone asks "Do people in Japan speak Japanese?" We might marvel that someone could be that ignorant, but we'd have to conclude they're really asking what the language of Japan is. But when someone asks "Do people in Japan speak English," we assume that they know the language of Japan is Japanese, so they can't possibly be asking if everyone in Japan speaks English. We interpret it as asking if anyone in Japan speaks English.

When you say "the people" it leaves less room for ambiguity.

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The examples in your question are more than just prepositional phrases: they're full sentences (independent clauses). Also, "the" is a definite article, not a relative pronoun.

The fact that something is a preposition phrase is not in itself a reason to include the definite article "the" in it.

If you mean "Japanese people" in both examples, whether or not you use the definite article makes no difference to the meaning.

If "people" includes others, the article could refer to a specific group in Japan, such as foreigners who speak Japanese.

More generally, as John Lawler points out, you need to think of the context whenever deciding to use the definite article in a preposition phrase. If you want to know which kinds of preposition phrases include the the or tend to do so, you'll have to ask some more questions!

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