Recently I found this sentence in Oscar Wilde's essay "The Decay of Lying":

Let us go and lie on the grass and smoke cigarettes and enjoy nature.

Why there is a the before the word grass but not a the before cigarettes and nature in this sentence?

2 Answers 2


'The' is the definite article. It is used to restrict the meaning of a noun to make it refer to something that is known by both the speaker or writer and the listener or reader (1).

Although "the grass" may not refer to a specific location, the definite article here specifies a grassy place of a type that would be to the author's liking (as opposed to other grassy places that would not). Had Wilde said "Let us sit down on grass" (i.e. without the definite article) the possible places to sit would clearly have been too varied and random (see comment below).

Cigarettes are many and, individually, unremarkable. There is no specific cigarette that the author has in mind.

Nature is unique. There are not multiple versions. There is only one. In this context 'the' is redundant.

  • 1
    There's no indication that Wilde had a particular place in mind when he wrote "the grass", which is an idiom for a tended lawn.
    – deadrat
    Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 9:58
  • @deadrat - consider the alternative, Let us sit down on grass. Without the article the randomness of 'grass' (unspecified) is clearly different and wrong. While it is true that there probably was no specific patch of grass in his mind, the author was clearly suggesting a grassy place that would be fitting for sitting on (as opposed to the many, many grassy places which would not be where he wanted to sit).
    – Dan
    Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 10:15

First, the use of the definite article in " the grass" may refer to a specific place that the speakers know well and they are used to sitting there.

Second, the zero article in "cigarettes" refers to a generic use of a plural noun that does not need a definite article.

Third, words such as "nature, fate, paradise and hell are exceptional nouns that are almost always used without the definite article.

  • The reality isn't so much that a specific chunk of grass is being talked about but that "lie on the grass" is the idiomatic way to phrase it. "Lie on grass" sounds funny to me, as a native English speaker.
    – Catija
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 3:57
  • @catija - "Lie on grass" isn't 'funny' it's simply a different meaning. Adding 'the' in this context makes it grass of a particular type - the type we like to sit on!
    – Dan
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 7:12

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