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Why is it "the victims" in this sentence?

"Mr. Trump stated, "Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life. If I win the election for President, we are going to Make America Great Again."

Could we omit the article there? What warrants the definite article to be there exactly?

  • When there is OF after a noun, the rule is: the [noun] of [noun]. The offices of companies in overseas locations. The style of writers in Latin America, etc. That said /the victims of horrendous attacks/ means something slightly different than /victims of horrendous attacks/. – Lambie Nov 14 '16 at 13:33
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The plural without an article is a form of generalization, and so without the the idea is expressed in rather abstract terms.

We cannot allow ourselves to become victims of X ...

With the, the expression is made more "concrete" and particular, just a little more real.

This fine a shade of difference only comes to the fore when the text is subjected to a kind of close-up analysis that most listeners never engage in. The subconscious effects, however, are probably measurable; you could strap focus groups to wiring harnesses and measure their heartbeat, respiration, body temperature, eye dilation, etc etc.

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The cited context is inherently "flawed, awkward", since it's using the copula form [cannot] be to link singular our country and plural [the] victims. But we could resolve that with, say,...

We cannot be [the] victims of our circumstances.

...where grammatically / syntactically the article the is entirely optional. Statistically, it's not likely to be included, as can be seen by comparing the non-negated forms We are victims of circumstance (229 hits in Google Books) and We are the victims of circumstance (6 hits).


But semantically there's at least a potential difference in emphasis, in that including the article implies that the victims do actually exist (logically extrapolated from the principle that the definite article references something previously mentioned or contextually obvious).

A pedant might therefore suggest that Trump's inclusion of the implies that he accepts there are/will be victims of horrendous attacks (he just doesn't want Americans to be those1 victims).

A politically-motivated pedant might therefore go on to suggest Trump's choice of phrase here reflects an "isolationist" world-view (Trump wants to ensure America isn't a victim, rather than to prevent all such horrendous attacks worldwide, and thereby ensure no-one is a victim).

That's just clutching at straws, though. Both versions are fine, and to all intents and purposes they both mean the same thing.


1 Note that my those is a "determiner" with exactly the same implications as the in respect of the "referent does actually exist" argument here.

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