Why do we use the definite article before most nationalities such as "the British" but we say "Canadians" without the?

Specifically, why is it that, for example,...

Canadians like maple syrup.

...is a normal/unremarkable statement/sentence, but...

*British think they put on a "jolly good show" for the 2012 Olympics.

...is "incorrect" without a leading definite article?

closed as not a real question by StoneyB, tchrist, Daniel, user11550, Hugo Oct 5 '12 at 12:00

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    The Canadians speak the same language as the British? – American Luke Oct 3 '12 at 14:24
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    You're mixing two kinds of names. "Canadians" is analogous to "Britons", not to "the British". "Britons" refers to some people; "the British" refers to a people. – MetaEd Oct 3 '12 at 15:04
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    @Alisa: I don't understand the closevotes - as I write, three people are saying it's "Not a Real Question". I'll edit your text, but if you don't like the changes, please feel free to edit it again yourself. – FumbleFingers Oct 3 '12 at 16:16
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    I have no idea how this is not a real question either. – coleopterist Oct 3 '12 at 16:41
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    FWIW I think it's a great question. – JAM Oct 3 '12 at 17:28

"While the Canadians" may not always require the definite article, there are over 10,000 written instances showing they're quite capable of taking it on board.

We British, on the other hand, can only do without it in constructions like that (where "We..." effectively stands in for "We, the...").

It's probably connected to the fact that we have an alternative demonym that doesn't normally take a definite article...

"Americans, Canadians, and Britons" are all anglophones.

(as are "The Americans, the Canadians, and the British")

Per MετάEd's comment to the question itself, the British normally refers collectively to a people, so you'll see things like The British are an industrious race. But in contexts where multiple individuals are being referenced, we'd normally say something like Four Britons were among the dead.

It's interesting to consider the position of the French here. Several French were among them is really unusual (that was the only clear-cut example I could easily find in Google Books), whereas two Frenchmen were among [them] is unexceptional. I don't know what the disaster reporters would write if the French casualties were a man and a woman, but not actually a French couple.

  • +1 Is Brit considered an abbreviation of British or Briton or both? I ask because it doesn't seem to require said article. – coleopterist Oct 3 '12 at 14:47
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    @coleopterist: I don't think I can answer that one, even speaking just for myself! If I'm forced to, I'd say I see Brit as about equally split between being an abbreviation (of British, Briton, Britisher, again, all about equal), and a "standalone" word that doesn't have to be seen as an abbreviation of any one of them in particular. – FumbleFingers Oct 3 '12 at 15:11

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