1

In the following dialog, both

‘the people who we don’t know’ and
‘Ø people who we don’t know’

might mean either

‘all the people who we don’t know’ or
‘some of the people who we don’t know.’

The people who ...’ sounds more like ‘all’ than just ‘Ø people who ...’ according to some native speakers. However, it is IMPLIED/ FELT/ PERCEIVED.
In fact, some native speakers say ‘the people who we don’t know’ sounds no more than just ‘some.’ ‘All or some’ shouldn’t be the determinant.

What do you think is the determinant, then? Any and all insights would be welcome. What do you think is the determinant for deciding you should use ‘the’ or not in the following example? Some people feel you mean ‘all the people’ with ‘the,’ but it’s not the primary determinant, many people think. Would it be your mind that wants to emphasize the meaning of the relative pronouns that places ‘the’ there?

(Suppose there is no context, explicit or implicit, that brings on the definite article in front of ‘people’ and ‘ones’ other than, possibly, the relative noun clauses ‘who we don’t know’ and ‘who we know.’)

Tom: Although the/Ø people who we don’t know from our Sendai factory came to the party, the/Ø ones who we know didn’t.

Sam: Oh, I didn’t even know you have a factory in Sendai.

(I wrote this dialog, thinking ‘we’ are Tom and some of his co-workers, and that it doesn’t include Sam. Sam is from outside Tom’s company)

  • The people==all people; people we know == some, possibly all – mplungjan Sep 1 '13 at 5:07
3

Starting from basics:

the is the definite article (singular & plural)
a is the indefinite article (singular); for plural indefinite, no article is used.

So:

The man/men refers to a specific/defined (or definite) man/men (whom you have already specified or subsequently specify); e.g.:
- The man with the dog didn't clear up the dog mess.
- The men mending the road did a very good repair.

A man / Men refers to an unspecified/undefined (or indefinite) man/men (the actual man/men is/are not specified/defined; e.g.:
- I saw a man walking his dog today.
- There were men mending the road outside my house.

Likewise:

The people refers to a defined/specific (or definite) group of people
People refers to any undefined/unspecific (or indefinite) group of people.

Back to the phrases in your question:

the people who we don't know from our Sendai factory came to the party

refers to a specific defined group of people, namely the people from the Sendai factory who you don't know.
In that this is a specific defined group, it necessarily implies all of the people who you don't know.
So, everyone from the factory that you don't know came to the party.

And similarly:

the ones who we know didn't.

means all of the ones you [do] know didn't come.

On the other hand:

people who we don't know from our Sendai factory came to the party

refers to an undefined/indefinite group of people, namely [some] people from the Sendai factory who you don't know. (It could be all of them - but that is not specified.)

And similarly:

ones who we know didn't.

means some of the ones you [do] know didn't come.
[In practice, in English you wouldn't say "ones who we know"; you would simply say "some who we know".

Summarising:

because the is the definite article, it does mean all of the defined group.
because the absence of an article with a plural noun is equivalent to the indefinite article with a singular noun, it need not mean all of the group and hence implies some of the group.

Thus, far from your suggestion that whether the presence or absence of the causes it to mean some or all is merely 'implied, felt, or perceived', it is actually an issue of fundamental grammar.

  • Thanks, Trevor. How about this: We went to Disneyland Sunday. As soon as we arrived there, our kids ran to the rides. The kids cannot run to all the rides there. How do you interpret this as having to do with all-ness? Your enlightenment would be much appreciated. – Sssamy Sep 2 '13 at 13:21
  • 1
    They ran to [towards] the [group of] rides [at Disneyland]. They (presumably) didn't go on all the rides. The emphasis on "all" in my answer was based on your specific question. In this case, the is referring to the specific rides at that location. – TrevorD Sep 2 '13 at 13:33
1

As a rough guide, when there is no determiner, this tends to indicate that the entity/entities involved are indeterminate: in other words, that the speaker does not see them as a 'list of specific things/people that could be listed/named/individualised'.

So for example in these cases:

(a) The/some people we had met before came to the party. (They were Jim, Bill, Karen, Anne...)

(b) The/some people we didn't know came to the party. (There were 20 of them. We later learnt they were called Sam, Brenda, Mary...)

It would potentially make sense to add the part in brackets, 'specifying' the group of people. But in the following cases, adding the bit in brackets sounds slightly odd:

(c) People we didn't know came to the party. (??There were 20 of them.)

(d) People we knew came to the party. (??They were Brenda, Alan and Dave.)

So when you use the 'bare' noun without the determiner, you are indicating that the group/entity is 'non-specific'. Because of that, it often sounds pragmatically odd if you go on to specify them as in the parts in brackets in (c) and (d), and if you added the bracketed parts in (c) or (d), it would sound more natural to use the determiner in the first sentence.

  • Hello, Neil. That's very informative. Thanks. They say 'the' is used when the referent is 'mutually' specifiable. According to your explanation, it seems like 'the people' are mutually specified to the extent Tom can identify them, and that Sam knows that (he knows they are specifiable). 'Ø people,' on the other hand, are vague. Sam knows Tom cannot tell you who they were, and Sam feels that. Am I on the right track? – Sssamy Sep 1 '13 at 9:15
  • Is the same thing true, Neil, if it's a singular noun like 'the/a man' in the following? (Suppose there is no context, explicit or implicit, that brings on the definite article in front of 'man' other than, possibly, the relative noun clauses 'who we don't know.') Tom: The/a man who we don't know from our Sendai factory came to the party. Sam: Oh, I didn't know you have a factory in Sendai. (I wrote this dialog, thinking 'we' are Tom and some of his co-workers, and that it doesn't include Sam. Sam is from outside Tom's company) – Sssamy Sep 1 '13 at 9:58
  • I've not heard the condition of them being 'mutually' specifiable before. I suspect it's less of a strict condition: what is probably happening is that, as the speaker, I choose the article according to my perception of the universe (or rather, the perception I choose to convey), but that in that choice, there is a phenomenon of accommodation: how I choose to portray things will almost always depend on how I know my audience also perceives things. – Neil Coffey Sep 1 '13 at 15:10
  • Re mass nouns, yes a similar observation holds. If I say "Milk has been spilt on this floor (many times)" -- no article -- I imply that I don't really have a very precise perception of the quantity of milk. But if I say "Some milk has been split on this floor", I indicate that the quantity of milk is roughly known or can be roughly estimated. – Neil Coffey Sep 1 '13 at 15:12
  • Gee, I like your insights, Neil. Your first comment is very valuable to me as a non-native speaker. Could you please comment on the 'the/a man' chat between Tom and Sam in my second comment? (Suppose there is NO context, explicit of implicit, that brings on the definite article in front of 'man' other than, possibly, the relative pronoun clause 'who we don't know.' [Oooops, it looks like I said 'clauses' in that comment. Obviously, it was a mistake] And 'we' doesn't include Sam) – Sssamy Sep 2 '13 at 7:11

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