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From "NASA’s computers used to wear skirts. They’re finally getting the attention they deserve" by Rachel Feltman in The Washington Post, August 17, 2016.

Take that in for a second: Johnson was helping her country win the space race, calculating trajectories that got spacecraft in and out of space, for a decade before it became illegal for her co-workers to discriminate against her.

Why don’t we need a definite article the before trajectories while it is specified by the following that clause? If I put the there, what difference will it make?

  • This is not at all a "basic" question. The meaning and scope of plural count nouns, including bare plurals, is a much-researched and discussed topic among linguists. – Alan Carmack Aug 19 '16 at 21:55
  • @tagoot It makes no difference. That's why it is omitted! – P. E. Dant Aug 20 '16 at 7:11
  • Oh, it's really easy to understand a sentence once you start dissecting it. You work with the big and go down to the little parts. The sentence is a Compound-Complex Sentence. After breaking down by clause, you analyze the clauses. Take this sentence for example, I'll list the main, the dependents, and then remaining independent(s). The main clause is: (You) take that in for a second; second independent: Johnson was helping her country win the space race, calculating trajectories; first dependent: that got spacecraft in and out of space, for a decade; second dependent: – Arch Denton Sep 5 '16 at 5:42
  • before it became illegal for her co-workers to discriminate against her. Now I apply my own personal technique, a rule, I use this: Every word in a sentence not only functions as a part of speech but also serves a purpose in the sentence. I can diagram using the Reed-Kellogg method to explain the function and purpose of every clause, phrase, and word in it. That's because I got experience of course. And books under my belt. – Arch Denton Sep 5 '16 at 5:47
  • But nobody really cares that much about grammar. The biggest thrill I get is with the polite teens, when they aren't telling me off or aggravating me, say, "Wow! That's awesome. Thank you so much!" I love fame. – Arch Denton Sep 5 '16 at 5:54
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It's a fairly subtle distinction in any case, but I see a difference in implied scope between

calculating trajectories that got spacecraft in and out of space

and

calculating the trajectories that got spacecraft in and out of space

Something similar happens with this pair of sentences:

Dr. Mithridates spent several hours identifying reasons that people do idiotic things while driving.

and

Dr. Mithridates spent several hours identifying the reasons that people do idiotic things while driving.

So let's consider the latter pair first. To my ear, the first version of the sentence—the one with "identifying reasons"—indicates that Dr. Mithridates identified some reasons; and the second version—the one with "identifying the reasons"—suggests that Dr. Mithridates was engaged in identifying all of the reasons. It therefore seems to me that pointing to "reasons" without a definite article makes a more modest claim than pointing to "the reasons" does.

Similarly, I read "calculating trajectories" as implying "calculating some trajectories that got spacecraft in and out of space," whereas "calculating the trajectories" comes closer to implying "calculating all of the trajectories that got spacecraft in and out of space."

With regard to your question about whether the definite article is necessary, I hope it is clear that although expressing the idea with and without the definite article can yield sentences with arguably different meanings, neither wording is inherently unfinished or otherwise faulty.

  • I agree and you cannot possibly calculate all of the trajectories since there is a constant movement of celestial bodies. – Helmar Aug 18 '16 at 12:17
  • Yes, @Helmar but if the number of possible trajectories is finite, the trajectories that got spacecraft in and out of space does not necessarily refer to all (of) them. (I have no idea whether Helmar and/or the OQ's asker tagoot will be pinged with this comment, or even an answer I write, since the question was migrated; but I find this an interesting grammatical point and related to one that I am researching and have offered a bounty on.) – Alan Carmack Aug 20 '16 at 4:34

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