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My colleague and I were discussing a student's paper.

We agreed that according to our experiences and knowledge of English, the following sentence is grammatically correct: "The difference between the rich and the poor in our city stems from..."

But, another colleague claimed that it would be acceptable to say, "The difference between rich and poor in our city stems from..."

While searching for examples of each, we found ourselves befuddled.

Why are both versions seemingly acceptable?

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The difference between (the) rich and (the) poor in our city stems from ...

Yes, they are both acceptable.

"The rich" is called a 'fused-head' noun phrase, in which the adjective "rich" is a fused modifier-head. In other words the single word "rich" is at the same time a modifier and also the head. The NP is determined by the definite article "the" and is used generically here, where it illustrates a category of human being.

Dropping "the" does not change the basic construction type, and it is still interpreted generically as "rich people".

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Rich and poor are adjectives.

‘a rich and famous family’

With the definite article, they become phrasal nouns: "the rich" and "the poor".

‘every day the split between the rich and the poor widens’

That is, those who are rich and those who are poor.

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