Here's another one concerning the usage of the definite article that I've been wondering about....

[1-1] I went into the faculty room, and talked to teachers.

[1-2] I went into the faculty room, and talked to the teachers.

Some of my friends whose first languages are English told me upon hearing [1-2] they feel I talked to all the teachers in the office whereas with [1-1] I may not have talked to all. What do you think makes them feel so? The designates "teachers" as the teachers who were in the office. More so with [1-2] because there is the than with [1-1]. Is it that the teachers in [1-2] are so explicitly more quantified because of the; thus, implicitly you are more convinced that I talked to all the teachers in the office? Part of the reason why I'm uncertain is that with [1-3] clearly you cannot head to all the rides out there in one dash; even there is the you do not mean all.

[1-3] We went to the new theme park with over a hundred rides Sunday. As soon as we arrived at the amusement park, our kids dashed to the rides.

Thanks in advance. Any and all enlightenments and comments would be very welcome.

Hiro/ Sendai, Japan
1 2
you cannot head to all the rides out there in one dash

Hmmm. Why not? I don't think the sentence means to imply individual approaches to each of the many rides, but merely an approach to the general area of the park where (all) the rides can be found.

The same is true of the teachers in the previous examples. If you talked to the teachers, you may have talked to them as a group, saying one thing addressed to all. Or you may have talked to them individually. The words of the sentence do not specify exactly which.


Hi, Calif JIm.

Thought I could write longer with my own sense of the article --- a non-native-speaker's sense, and so with further inquiries, but I'm bogged down at the moment with this horrible cold the flu shot I had last Friday must have brought along. My brain only works a fraction of a second now. I will be back when I've overcome it. Snuffles, snuffles ....

Hiro/ Sendai, Japan
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Hi, I'm back up and running, with the cold.

I have to write this as an "anonymous," as I'm away from home without my password.

[1-2] I went into the faculty room, and talked to the teachers.

The merely sounds to me as though it gives the word teachers the quality of being there in the faculty room. Thus, the teachers implies all the teachers because they all qualify as having the attribute. But couldn't it be the speaker only talked to some of the teachers in the room?

Likewise, couldn't "I" have spoken to all the teachers in the room in [1-1]?

[1-1] I went into the faculty room, and talked to teachers.

Hiro/ Sendai, Japan
Let's put it this way: "the" presents a description as defining. "the" forestalls the question "which?". The listener instinctively knows this and therefore expects that if "the" is used, there is some way of interpreting the statement so that "which?" will not need to be asked.

That in mind, when the native speaker hears "I went into the faculty room and talked to the teachers", he knows that he is not expected to ask "Which teachers?". He knows that the teachers referred to by the speaker are fully defined simply by the words "the teachers". From a purely practical point of view, "the teachers" can only mean "those teachers who were present in the faculty room and available to talk to". Now, does "those teachers ..." really only mean "all those teachers who were present ...". Perhaps not. But that is probably what it means, and it is certainly something that it can mean. Depending on the imagination of the recipient of this news, it can also mean "all those teachers who were present and were willing to talk to me". It can also mean "all those teachers to whom I wished to speak". But in the nearly context-free situation you have here -- a single sentence not embedded in an entire story of events, of which this is only one -- there is no definitive way of saying exactly who is referred to by the description "the teachers". We do know that it is all of some set of teachers. And we know that we are not expected to ask "Which teachers?". We are expected to figure it out for ourselves. In so doing, the conclusion we are most likely to come to is that "the teachers" is (at least vaguely) like "all the teachers".

So yes, it is perfectly possible that the speaker talked only to some of the teachers in the room. The sentence, as it stands, does not specify whether that happened or not. But it does specify that the speaker talked to all of some set of teachers, because the use of "the" defines exactly such a set, even though the use of "the" does not necessarily completely specify the set and leaves it up to the listener's imagination to think of which set it could be.

I realize that this is problematic if your native language does not make these distinctions in the same way that seems so natural to us English speakers. It seems that I'm saying "the" makes the description fully defined and, at the same time, not fully defined, because the listener's imagination must do some of the work of defining it! Another way of saying it is that "the" presents the description as fully defined in the mind of the speaker. Whether the listener agrees is another story and may even be the basis for further conversation: "What do you mean by 'the teachers'? You didn't really speak to all of them, did you?" -- and so on.


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My second post here deals with your second concern.

I went into the faculty room and talked to teachers.

You could have spoken to any number of teachers, or even all of them (who were present in the room, on the most likely reading), according to this sentence. Here your listener can ask, quite sensibly, "Which teachers did you talk to?", and you can answer, "To the ones who wore something red" or "To the ones who smiled at me" or even "To all of them".

There is something slightly anomalous about this sentence, however. By saying only "teachers" we seem to be marking the expression as non-specific or generic in some way. "I talked to teachers", by itself, can have the connotation of "I used to talk to teachers".

-- What did you do for a living?
-- I was a teacher trainer. I talked to teachers. I trained them to be more effective teachers.

On the other hand, there is nothing particularly suggestive of anything habitual in "I went into the faculty room".
We want to say the whole sentence either with the idea of something habitual or the whole sentence as the telling of events, and as it stands the sentence has a mixture of these aspects. I think that's what makes it slightly anomalous to my ear.

I would prefer to hear:
I went into the faculty room and talked to the teachers.
I used to go into faculty rooms and talk to teachers.
I went into faculty rooms and talked to teachers.

Hello CJ

Your explanations are superb. I've learned much about THE from them. My understanding is like:
[1] Teachers are bossy. : general statement about teachers.
[2] The teachers are bossy. : description about some specified teachers.
I hope I am not wrong.


Thanks! I'm glad to hear that my posts helped.
And no, you are not wrong. Those are good examples.

"the" is called the definite article for a reason! "definite" is related to the word "defined". The use of "the" indicates that the speaker believes he has sufficiently defined what he is describing so that the listener can figure out the referent of the words. The speaker presents the expression as defining, i.e., as detailed enough so that, in his opinion, any listener should be able to determine the referent.


P.S. Some authors make a finer distinction between "defined" and "specific", so that in a sentence like:
"I am looking for the right house to buy."
"the" is considered defining; it offers a formula (definition), if you will, by which we will be able to recognize which house you are talking about. It is also non-specific, because, until the process of looking and buying is complete, we don't know which specific house the expression "the right house" refers to.
(Generic uses are always non-specific, by the way.)
It's a fine distinction, but I thought you might be interested.
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