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I have been wondering about the usage of the definite article with the nouns that refer to natural phenomena such as wind, rain, weather. Michael Swan suggests in "Practical English Usage" that quote: "The is used with a number of rather general expressions referring to your physical environment. [...] Examples are: [...] the wind, the rain, the weather." He later goes on to present the following examples:

"British people talk about the weather a lot."

"I love listening to the wind."

All of it made sense until I started digging and found some contradictory examples in a dictionary corpus.

Oxford:

1."There will be rain in all parts tomorrow."

2."Typically, we get nearly 5 inches of rain in June."

3."Rain dripped down his collar." <-- To make things more complex, Longman offers such a sentence "The rain dripped down his neck." Is there any difference in meaning between these two?

4."His flight was cancelled due to bad weather." <-- As opposed to this Longman's example: "Due to the bad weather, the building work was already behind schedule."

5."We've had great weather all week."

I would be grateful if you could share your opinion and elaborate on the proper usage of the definite articles in such examples.

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  • 1
    Does this answer your question? '... the weather' vs. '... weather'
    – Stuart F
    Mar 14 at 22:09
  • Thank you but I have already read the article and it could only provide me with an answer to point 5. The others still remain a mystery.
    – Penguin422
    Mar 14 at 22:17
  • "His flight was cancelled due to bad weather" - there was bad weather somewhere that would have affected the flight had it taken off. To me, "the bad weather" implies conditions at the point of departure that have already been mentioned. As for (3), there is no difference in meaning, but using "the rain" suggests that we have already been told that it was raining. Mar 15 at 8:50

2 Answers 2

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"the weather" typically refers to actual weather that one is experiencing or might experience. So if you talk about the weather it means you're talking about something like the rain that happened that day or is predicted for the near future. Saying "It's sure nice outside" or "I heard it's going to rain tomorrow" is talking about the weather. So is "It's raining in London."

"weather" without the article refers to the general concept or phenomenon of weather. Climate scientists might hold a conference to talk about weather. An example would be "more severe storms are a consequence of global warming."

A meteorologist might have studied weather so he can predict the weather.

There are some borderline cases that are hard to classify in these ways. "It usually snows here in winter" could be described either way.

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  • "'the weather' typically refers to actual weather that one is experiencing." No, it doesn't, not "typically". It sometimes does, but also often means the weather in general — past, present, future. (It does often refer to the weather near where one is speaking rather than that of a much larger region like the entire world.) Mar 15 at 0:30
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Yes, there certainly are subtleties involved. But this is true universally about articles; Collins Cobuild has a 100+ page monograph about article usage in English ... and they don't really address the use of the indefinite article with non-count noun usages ('He took a pride in his appearance'), or Master's work on the zero ('We had chicken for tea' / 'We had a chicken for tea' and null ('Beer in Germany is very different from that in England' / 'The beer in Germany is very different from that in England') articles.

I'll attempt to explain your examples.

  • British people talk about the weather a lot.

['the' is used as weather is, though on closer analysis very variable, essentially uniquely specified. Compare 'British people talk about the state of the economy a lot'.]

  • British people talk about weather a lot.

[this is equally grammatical; it could be seen as nuancing more global weather than the previous example, and certainly feels less homely.)

  • I love listening to the wind.

(the wind is almost personified, speaks of well-known local conditions, and this is so natural that

  • ?I love listening to wind.

sounds unnatural.

  • There will be rain in all parts tomorrow. /
  • Typically, we get nearly 5 inches of rain in June.

both use the noun 'rain' clinically, as a totally general phenomenon; the use of the definite article would be unidiomatic, probably ungrammatical.

  • Rain dripped down his collar.

is fine, again clinical.

  • The rain dripped down his collar.

also works, making the spell of rain involved more immediate, more personal.

  • His flight was cancelled due to bad weather.

is fine; clinical, generalised.

  • His flight was cancelled due to the bad weather. (and the 'building work' example given):

also fine, probably referencing bad weather already mentioned, but certainly more specific, less generalised. Think of                • His flight was cancelled due to the bad weather they were experiencing.

  • We've had great weather all week.

is the only idiomatic choice, speaking of generalised meteorological conditions (compare          • We've had good food all week).

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  • All good examples. But it is not easy to write down general rules for when a definite article is preferable and when it is not. Mar 15 at 0:35
  • That's what I said in the first paragraph. Mar 15 at 15:53
  • Agreed. By the way, is that Collins Cobuild monograph that you mention included in the Collins Cobuild English Grammar (digital edition)? Mar 15 at 17:51
  • It's not in my printed edition. They have a series; there's one on determiners in general, though the Wikipedia article on 'English determiners' is perhaps better. Mar 15 at 19:36
  • Thank you for your explanation. I like the word "clinically" that you used to depict the difference. It seems that weather/ the weather is special in contrast to the other nouns and the rules work differently for this noun. Just out of curiosity, is it possible to refer to the noun "wind" without the definite article? What about, for example, a sentences provided by Barmar but a bit changed : Someone studies weather i.e rain, wind, storms to predict the weather. I wonder if anyone would need to have the components of weather listed but let's just agree that they would.
    – Penguin422
    Mar 15 at 21:37

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