One must learn to distinguish (the?) good from (the?) bad.

Which is the correct form of the above sentence ? Do we need to use article the ? If so why ? I read on this blog that without the article the it's incorrect but why it is incorrect?

I have another question, Is to distinguish correct here or replacing it with it how to distinguish is better ?

  • I think it's a kind of a fixed expression Jun 21, 2017 at 14:33
  • @user178049 I believe that n-gram might be misleading.
    – user3395
    Jun 21, 2017 at 14:39
  • @user178049 Haha. There is no difference because your n-gram shows results for one search string since the other one has more than 5 tokens.
    – user3395
    Jun 21, 2017 at 14:47
  • In line with cjl750's answer - think of the phrase as having an implied 'things' or 'aspects' after good/bad.
    – Lawrence
    Jun 21, 2017 at 15:05

1 Answer 1


@user178049 is correct in that "[distinguish] the good from the bad" is an expression. Though you could fit other verbs in there besides just "distinguish." For example, you can take the good and take the bad, and then you've got the theme song for an American sitcom from the '80s.

The point is really that taking out the articles changes the meaning a bit (or at least makes the meaning a bit more ambiguous).

One must learn to distinguish good from bad

is a perfectly acceptable English sentence. But that's not super hard for most people. Little kids generally understand the difference between good and bad, or right and wrong. The trick is applying the theory to the real world.

In the real world, you've got gray areas. You've also got things or people or ideas that might seem good or bad on the surface but are actually the opposite.

That's why we add in the articles. "The good" and "the bad" refer to the specific things in the world that are good and not bad, or vice versa – whatever those things may be. (So they're "specific," but only sort of.)

In answer to your other question about "distinguish," I would say it is okay here. That is just a simple infinitive. You could say "how to distinguish," though; that's okay too.

To me,

One must learn how to distinguish good from bad

implies maybe a slightly different emphasis than

One must learn to distinguish the good from the bad

But I'd say they both get at approximately the same idea.

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