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The Adventure of English, page 286, reads "The Americans are more polite about the English than the English are about Americans"

I wouldn't use the definite article before "Americans" in this sentence, and I can't understand why it is used at the beginning of the sentence but not at the end. Are both cases correct (using and omitting)?

For clarity: the sentence is the beginning of a paragraph that goes on: .... "The British feared that "their" English had been taken from them; that its new owners were not looking after it as deserved; and a deeper fear that they were at the cutting edge now: it was not the British who propelled the adventure.

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Yes, both uses are correct.

Part of it is stylistic. The Americans somehow sounds better than Americans at the beginning of the sentence. Part of this is that The Americans goes well with the two uses of the English. But why switch to Americans with the zero-article?

Here lies the difference between 'Americans' with or without 'the'.

'The Americans' refers to all Americans, as in 'The Americans as a people' or 'the American people.' Thus, it is equivalent to 'The English.' By contrast Americans means 'Americans in general' and does not have to refer to all Americans.

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The author uses 'the English' (where 'English' is an adjective that stands in for the noun 'Englishmen'), but 'Americans' is a noun. In this context, the definite article is required before 'English'. It is not required before 'Americans'.

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