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Wealthy London homeowners planning to dig underground extensions beneath their properties will be hit by Britain's first "basement tax" in a fresh crackdown on so-called iceberg homes.

Under new rules enforced by Westminster yesterday, residents will have to pay an average of £8,000 to get planning permission for basement extensions,

Why does the writer say Wealthy London homeowners not the Wealthy London homeowners ?

In my thinking the writer is speaking about a specific group of people; he doesn't speak about all people but only the wealthy, and even not all the wealthy but those who live in London and who are homeowners who are planning to dig underground extensions). This makes me think that the writer intended to make the sentence more and more specific.

Also, why doesn't he say Under the new rules enforced by Westminster yesterday because he speaks about specific rules that enforced by a specific city in a specific day. Thank you.

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Because specificity is not the same as definiteness, and presumably the writer wanted to make an indefinite reference. One can do that two ways when using a noun phrase whose head noun is plural count noun: (a) using 'some' (some wealthy London homeowners... and (b) using the bare plural (wealthy London homeowners...).

To make a definite reference, the writer uses the definite article. What is definite is 99% of the time also specific.

But what is specific does not have to be definite.

It may be easier to see, using a singular count noun:

The indefinite article can be used to make a specific but indefinite reference, such as in the following:

A wealthy London homeowner planning to dig an underground extension beneath his property will be hit by Britain's first "basement tax".

We are taking about a specific London homeowner. We can even be so specific that we give him a name and an address:

Fred, a wealthy London homeowner living at 221 Butler Street planning to dig an underground extension beneath his property, will be hit by Britain's first "basement tax".

You see you can get quite specific about who you are talking about without making a definite reference.

The way, or perhaps the most common way, to make a definite reference is to use the definite article. So we simply take any of the above indefinite noun phrases and make them definite by using the instead of a. For example:

The wealthy London homeowner planning to dig an underground extension beneath his property will be hit by Britain's first "basement tax".

or

Fred, the wealthy London homeowner living at 221 Butler Street planning to dig an underground extension beneath his property, will be hit by Britain's first "basement tax".

In both cases, the definite reference presupposes that the reader can identify the referent, that is identify which London homeowner the writer is talking about. The use of the indefinite noun phrase does not presuppose this.

That is the basic difference between a definite and an indefinite reference. And it works the same way when the noun phrase is plural, except that there is no absolute equivalent to the indefinite article in the plural. So, often we use the bare plural (London homeowners...).

And, just as in the case of the singular noun phrase, the writer does not expect the reader to be able to identify exactly which wealthy London homeowners planning to dig underground extensions beneath their properties he is talking about. Although the writer is being specific, he is not being definite.

You asked why? Well, one thing the indefinite reference is indefinite about is indefinite as to number. It could be 2 London homeowners, it could be 2,000, it could be 20,000. And the writer does not presuppose you know how many that there are, just that "there are" (some).

Whereas, if the reference was definite, as in

The wealthy London homeowners planning to dig underground extensions beneath their properties will be hit by Britain's first "basement tax"...

the writer assumes you know which London homeowners planning to dig underground extensions beneath their properties he is talking about.

But, note, the above definite reference does not have to refer to all the London homeowners planning to dig underground extensions beneath their properties. For it to mean that, it would have to be explicit, either elsewhere in the story or by using all the. What the definite reference does with the and a plural count noun is refer to an "undifferentiated subset" of all the London homeowners planning to dig underground extensions beneath their properties.

And since new rules is also a plural count noun phrase, everything I've said above applies to it as well.


Now for a bonus. Had the writer used those, he would expect not only that you can identify which wealthy London homeowners he is talking about but also that you are familiar with them, perhaps because he's mentioned them before. The same goes for the singular of those, which is that.

For instance:

Fred, that London homeowner living at 221 Butler Street planning to dig an underground extension beneath his property, will be hit by Britain's first "basement tax"

is talking about that London homeowner Fred... that the reader already knows about (= is familiar with), perhaps because the writer has mentioned then before. (Like in yesterday's news article or yesterday's newscast.)

The same thing for the plural:

Those wealthy London homeowners planning to dig underground extensions beneath their properties will be hit by Britain's first "basement tax"...

The use of those presupposes not only that you can identify which wealthy London homeowners planning to dig underground extensions beneath their properties he is talking about, but that you you are familiar with them as well.

  • Thank you Alan, it is much helpful,, but I have 2 questions for you, First, can I always use " how many number" to identify if tbe sentence needs "the" or not ? ,,,, Second, how could the definite reference does not have to refer to all the London homeowners planning to dig underground extensions beneath their properties, does not mean "all" ? I do not think I got it. – Gamal Thomas Sep 3 '16 at 10:43
  • @Gamal I will try to explain better, in a day or two It's a long, holiday weekend in my country. – Alan Carmack Sep 4 '16 at 5:04
  • @Gamal I am not sure I understand your first question. What do you mean use "how many number" to identify if the sentence needs "the" or not? – Alan Carmack Sep 8 '16 at 13:30
  • As I got from your post, and correct me here please: if I know how many London homeowners the writer speaks about or who they are (by their names) then the writer would add "the" .... is that right ? – Gamal Thomas Sep 9 '16 at 11:19
  • This is a very complicated subject. But, generally, when you use the London homeowners you expect or assume that your listener/reader can identity which or which set of London homeowners you are talking about. This does not (have to) mean identify each one by name. – Alan Carmack Sep 10 '16 at 1:50

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