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This question already has an answer here:

We use a plural count noun with no article if we mean all or any of that thing. For example:

Lions are very aggressive.

I don't like lions.

We only use the with general plural nouns when we are referring to a specific set within a general class of people or things. For example:

Books are so important in my life. (I mean all books in general.)

The books were all over the floor. (I mean specific books that you and I know.)


Let's say you and I are living in New York. There is only one zoo in NY. You and I know about that zoo but we have never been there.

Should I say

Lions in the zoo are very aggressive. (Lions that are in the zoo are very aggressive)

or

The lions in the zoo are very aggressive. (The lions that are in the zoo are very aggressive)


Similarly, should I say

Students in Accounting class are smart.

or

The students in Accounting class are smart.

marked as duplicate by Mari-Lou A, Davo, M.A.R., Hellion, Glorfindel Jan 7 at 18:45

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  • @fixer1234, but what about "general lions at a specific zoo"? – Tom Mar 29 '17 at 9:26
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    @fixer1234, there is no wrong to say "Lions in India are very aggressive". Then, what is the difference between "India" & "The zoo"? – Tom Mar 29 '17 at 9:27
  • India is a lot bigger than a zoo, so there's more room for flexibility. – J.R. Mar 29 '17 at 9:50
  • @fixer - That's more of an answer than a comment. – J.R. Mar 29 '17 at 10:02
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    Do you mean "Lions kept in zoos are aggressive"? Or do you mean "These specific lions at this specific zoo are aggressive"? – Dr. Funk Mar 29 '17 at 14:34
25

Lions in the zoo are very aggressive

Can be paraphrased: When lions are put in a zoo they become aggressive.

You are stating a general fact about lions in zoos everywhere.

"in the zoo" need not refer to a particular zoo, just as "in the hospital" need not refer to a particular hospital. "in the zoo" there can be paraphrased as in captivity.

If you want to say that these lions are unlike other lions found in other zoos, you need to point to this zoo in particular:

The lions in this zoo are very aggressive.

or

Lions in this zoo are very aggressive.

The first refers to those particular lions in captivity in this zoo. The second, without "the", is a more general statement than the first. It is more a statement about what this zoo does to lions than about the particular lions that are there now. We could add the word "always" and not really change its meaning:

Lions in this zoo are always very aggressive. That has been the case ever since the zoo opened, over 100 years ago. The caged area hasn't changed in size in all that time, and people think it might be too small for the number of lions in captivity here.

  • I agree with this, but does zoo always need an article, or does it depend on dialect? I imagine that in places that say things like she broke her leg and is in [] hospital the sentence patients in the hospital are aggressive could possibly be understood to refer to all patients in some particular hospital. In my own dialect college doesn't need an article, so students in the college are angry* would be parsed differently from students in [] college are angry, with the former referring to all students at a particular college and the latter all students everywhere. – 1006a Mar 29 '17 at 16:26
  • I imagine if in zoo is used as a locative, it wouldn't need the article. "We usually inoculate new animals while in quarantine, but on rare occasions we foul up and have to inoculate them in zoo." – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 29 '17 at 18:34
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    that works as well, if you're referring to a specific zoo that you are not currently in. – Tiny Giant Mar 29 '17 at 19:13
  • @1006a in zoo is not a common phrase in American English (we also don't say in hospital, but Brits do). To leave out the article, you would have to say in zoos, referring to zoos in general. – Barmar Mar 30 '17 at 19:35
  • @1006a: I agree that in zoo is rare, but in zoos is not correct for the example I gave. It is analogous to "some purchases are online, others, in store". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 30 '17 at 19:42
16

Because you are talking about the lions in the NY zoo, you should use the article. (Otherwise, your sentence makes it sound like you are talking about all lions at all zoos.)

As for the accounting example, if you are talking about a specific course at an institution, or a particular section, use the definite article:

The students in Accounting 101 are smart.

However, if you are talking about a group of students more broadly (i.e., engineering students at Oxford, Princeton, Winthrop, McGill, etc.), then leave the article out:

Students in nuclear engineering are smart.

As for your comment, about the lions in India, I see that as middle ground. You can say:

The lions in India are very aggressive.

because you are talking about a specific group of lions – the ones in India. However, you can also omit the article:

Lions in India are very aggressive.

because when we talk about a species of animal in general, it's okay to omit the article. (That's why we can say things like, "Elephants are heavy," or "Cheetahs are fast.") The phrase lions in India refers to a set that is broad enough to be referred to generally (no article), or subset narrow enough to include an article.

  • That trying to speak broadly would make a difference is a non sequitur. How did you arrive at that conclusion other than by feeling from experience? I guess you think the students are non countable? That means the list of references is not exhaustive, e.g. because it shows examples, not a precise definition. – Hector von Mar 29 '17 at 10:21
  • What about "The lion is very aggressive". The + singular count noun can be used to refer general kind of a thing (The kangaroo is found only in Australia- learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/…) – Tom Mar 29 '17 at 12:59
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    @Tom - As for "The lion is very aggressive", that has two possible interpretations: (a) The lion (as a species) is an aggressive animal, and (b) That one lion (the one we are talking about) is aggressive – perhaps especially so. – J.R. Mar 29 '17 at 14:38
9

There's some subtle difference.

If we're excited to go, but you cautiously say:

Lions in the zoo are very aggressive.

This sounds more general. I would get the idea that something about being in zoos tends to make lions more aggressive. There's a notion that this applies to all lions, and possibly all zoos.

The lions in the zoo are very aggressive.

This sounds more specific. I would get the idea that perhaps the zoo had a string of bad luck and aquired a set of particularly aggressive lions. There's a notion that this caution only applies to the specific lions currently inhabiting the zoo in New York.

Similarly with your second example:

Students in Accounting class are smart.

Perhaps Accounting class is difficult to get into, or something else about it tends to result in smart students enrolling in the accounting class. This makes it seem like the class has a reputation for either attracting or only allowing smart students.

The students in Accounting class are smart.

This makes it seem like you've met or observed the students currently enrolled in the accounting class, and got the impression they are bright. The presence of "the" strongly implies you are talking about a specific group of people, and not stating a general rule.

I can give a third example:

The shows on The History Channel are silly.

Whatever shows The History Channel is currently airing are silly.

Shows on The History Channel are silly.

The History Channel almost always airs only shows that are silly. In general, if you hear that a new show is coming to The History Channel, you would assume it was silly because "shows on The History Channel are silly," as a rule.

5

You can use both phrasings and people will understand what you mean. The difference is subtle and for this particular sentence does not matter all that much.

"Lions" is a category, as is "Lions in the zoo." If you make the statement "Lions in the zoo are very aggressive," you are making a statement about every animal that fits in that category.

When we add "the" in such sentences the meaning changes subtly. "The lions in the zoo" refers to a specific set of lions which we have identified as being in the zoo. Thus "The lions in the zoo are very aggressive" is a statement about a specific set of animals.

The subtle difference matters if we consider hypothetical scenarios. Consider a case where we added a new lion to the zoo. If you said "Lions in the zoo are very aggressive" before adding the new lion, you would expect this new lion to be very aggressive as well because it fits into the category of "lions in the zoo." If, on the other hand, you had said "The lions in the zoo are very aggressive," you might not be certain if this new lion is aggressive. It was not part of the original grouping at the time the statement was made. Maybe this lion is less aggressive.

On the other side of things, if I were to take one of these lions from the zoo and move it elsewhere, and you had said "Lions in the zoo are very aggressive," you might not be certain that this lion would still be aggressive, because it has been moved out of that category. Maybe they were aggressive because of the environment, and a change in environment changed their aggression. On the other hand, if you had said "The lions in the zoo are very aggressive," you would expect this lion to remain aggressive, even though it had been moved. While it is no longer a "lion in the zoo," it is still one of the individual lions referenced in the original statement.

In general, people will apply common sense and their own past experiences when being faced with both of these sentences, so if you get the phrasing wrong, you likely will not run into issues. At worst you might have to correct yourself if the conversation progresses to talk about moving lions in and out of the zoo. But if you want to be precise, there is a difference in how we talk about a category of things vs. a specific set of things, the word "the" is how we denote that subtle difference.

2

You made some astute observations about categorizing specific lions vs. lions in general (including in your comments). You give two pairs of examples at the end of your question. Both sets are similar and in both sets, either sentence can be correct, depending on what you mean. I'll stick with lions and add some other examples to clarify. The key point is that the general context or "setting" of the sentence gives clues as to which version to use, but it is your intended meaning that determines it.

No "the"

Leave out "the" when you refer to lions in a general sense: as a class of animal, or to lions in general, or to quantities of lions that are so large and contain so much diversity that the aggregate does not seem to be a meaningful subset. "Lions in zoos", or your example of "lions in India", would be such cases. I'll cover an exception, later.

It is more obvious when you are referring to large, diverse collections of lions, but you can mean "generic" lions even when referring to a relatively small quantity, or a collection of lions that would commonly be viewed as a specific group, like the collection of lions at one zoo. Some examples:

  • You could say "Lions at the zoo are well fed", referring to the class of animal.
  • If you were, say, a nature photographer and were assigned to get pictures of lions, you would say, "I'm going to the zoo to photograph lions." In that case you are talking about lions in the general sense, and they happen to be at the zoo.

"The"

If you mean to refer to a specific subset of lions, include the article. For example, if you are planning a trip to the zoo to observe the collection of lions there, you would say, "I'm going to the zoo to see the lions", referring to that specific collection. It's not so much whether it's a specific collection of lions, it's the meaning in which you want to refer to them.

I mentioned an exception earlier. You define a subset if you make a comparison. For example, if you were comparing lions in zoos to lions not in captivity, that distinction creates specific lions that you are referring to. In that case, you would say "the lions in zoos" to differentiate them. if you were comparing Indian lions to lions in America, you are defining each of those groups as a specific subset, so you would use "the lions in India" in that context to differentiate them.

Ambiguity

The specificity of "the" can actually introduce ambiguity if you use it in a way that isn't consistent with what seems like the obvious context of the sentence, or to match apparent specificity when that is contrary to your meaning. A few examples:

When you refer to huge aggregates of lions, like all lions in India, we tend not to think of them as a specific group, so we don't expect to see an article. If you include an article, people will infer a reason. If you say, "the lions in India", people will assume that you mean to differentiate those lions from some other lions, even if it was not your intention to make a comparison.

Take the earlier example of "lions at the zoo are well fed." That would unambiguously refer to lions as a class of animal. The sentence also qualifies that statement as talking about the ones at that zoo, so you don't really need "the" to establish specificity.

If instead, you use, "the lions at the zoo are well fed", it isn't clear whether "the" is an unnecessary, redundant reference to the specific collection of lions at that zoo. "The" can also be added to make a comparison. So perhaps "the" differentiates how well the lions are fed compared to some other types of animals at the zoo. "The lions at the zoo are well fed; the monkeys aren't so lucky."

Your examples

Lions in the zoo are very aggressive.

or

The lions in the zoo are very aggressive.

The first example refers to the case in your comment of general lions at a specific zoo. It refers generically to the class of animal. It could have a number of meanings, though, depending on how you interpret the rest of the sentence. For example:

Lions in the [or "a"] zoo are very aggressive, just like lions in the wild. or

Lions in the [or "a"] zoo are very aggressive, unlike lions in the wild. or

Lions in that particular zoo are very aggressive, unlike lions at other zoos.

Note that in the first two examples, "zoo" is being used to draw a comparison to non-zoos. So "the" can mean differentiation rather than reference to that specific zoo, in which case, "a" would have the same meaning of referring to any zoo.

The second example refers to the specific lions at that zoo. It could similarly have a number of meanings, though, depending on how you interpret the rest of the sentence. For example:

Those particular lions are very aggressive compared to lions at other zoos, or lions in the wild.

The lions at that zoo are very aggressive compared to some other animals at that zoo.

-1

If you say "the zoo", you should probably say "the lions". "In the zoo" is a restriction on the general noun (if it wasn't, you wouldn't have to add it at all). Of course that's still a generalization.

Compare that with "Lions in India are very aggressive", which is slightly wrong, I guess, because adverbials of location should come at the end of a sentence as indirect object of "to be". Use of "the" would indicate that you mean a noun phrase to restrict the noun to a specific subset of lions, not an adverbial phrase.

The same is definitely true for "the Indian lion". This is needed to help parse the sentence. Of course, it's simple enough that the intended meaning is still understandable, so it's not exactly wrong. But that sentence is a sweeping generalization, and therefore not appropriate in formal register. If you speak informally, prescriptive rules aren't as strong, so you are entitled to your opinion. But I understand the omission of the definite article and use of the plural instead when you specifically are trying to weaken the generalization, because you probably didn't check each one individually.

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