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I encountered the following sentence in a Duolingo course (and there are no other sentences):

I have brown eyes.

However, I was told that "I have the brown eyes." is not correct here. I don't understand the reason, so I would like to ask, why is the use of a definite article (the) not correct in this sentence?

The sentence is from a course that teaches French in English, and I’m not a native-English speaker

27

Eyes is a "plural count noun" and in this case we are talking about your eyes generally, rather than specifically. As a result, you can omit the the.

See Rule #3 here:

All things or things in general: Use no article with plural count nouns or any noncount nouns used to mean all or in general.

In the case of your other example:

I have the brown eyes

If you were talking about a pair of glass eyeballs, that could be a correct sentence, but it's referring to a specific pair of eyes, rather than a general fact about yourself.

Edit: swapping out my original examples for a better one

I have boxes

boxes is a plural count noun, so you don't need the, since that's a general statement. However if we're going to directly address the boxes, we'd say:

Which boxes? I have the boxes (over there)

If boxes is singular, you still need the article:

I have the box, or I have a box

It is incorrect to drop the article and say:

I have box

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    Thanks. I found that my answer was wrong since the sentence talks about the generality. But in English, is there a case where "the" is used to express the generality? – Blaszard Jan 7 at 17:30
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    @Blaszard If the group is large enough, it ends up sounding general even though it actually isn't. For example, 'the people' refers to the people of a specific place, but if that place is an entire country then the phrase sounds extremely general. – otah007 Jan 7 at 18:22
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    For example : We've lost the boxes of eyes for assembling the dragon statues - has anyone seen them?. I have the brown eyes, but I haven't seen the box of blue ones. – J... Jan 7 at 18:28
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    @Mako212 Should have been more clear - I meant that I have the brown eyes is a valid, grammatical sentence that doesn't need to refer to a specific pair of eyes, but could refer to any specific collection of eyes. In my example the "brown eyes" can refer to either the box with a number of brown eyes in it, or it could refer to just the collection of eyes which are in the box. In any case, just to make the point that there are plenty of other ways in which I have the brown eyes could be grammatical. – J... Jan 7 at 19:23
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    @travisw I wouldn't say so, no. Maybe I still have the boxes, but I still have the eyes themselves too. They just happen to be boxed still. Or maybe some fell out and I'm carrying them back. Either way, "I have the brown eyes." – Kevin Jan 8 at 2:19
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In certain contexts, the following is grammatical and idiomatic:

I have the brown eyes.

For example, if you're showing to someone a photograph of yourself as a child, and in the photo you are in the company of several children all about the same age as yourself, you might say

I have the blue eyes.

I have the bloody cheek.

I have the hat on.

to refer to the thing as a distinguishing feature. The statements above could be paraphrased as follows:

I am the one whose eyes are blue.

I am the one whose cheek is bloody

I am the one who is wearing a hat.

In the context of the photo, the feature is enough to single you out. There is only one instance of the feature in the photo.

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    The OP is not asking in which circumstances could "the" be used with a physical trait, but why "I have the brown eyes" is incorrect/inappropriate However, I was told that "I have the brown eyes." is not correct here. – Mari-Lou A Jan 8 at 8:32
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    @Mari-LouA: The use of the definite article strongly suggests that the person intends to imply something more than the color of their eyes. What is implied may vary depending upon context, but saying "I have the brown eyes" might in some contexts imply e.g. "The person in the photograph with brown eyes is me". Use of the definite article is only appropriate when such implication is intended, and is inappropriate otherwise. – supercat Jan 8 at 21:09
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    @Mari-Lou A: You don't need to tell me what you think the OP is asking. I answer as I see fit. Better to spend your efforts coaching the OP not to overlook the single most important thing about articles: CONTEXT. OP glosses over that critical point by asking why it is wrong "here". There is no "here" there. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 8 at 21:57
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From a comment, it appears that you're coming from a French background, so I'll answer in that context.

English article usage is similar in many ways to French usage, but not identical. One key difference is that in English we do not always use the definite article (or any article) when describing general concepts, or classes or categories.

I always have a glass of milk with dinner because I like milk not ...because I like the milk. The milk would refer only to a specific kind of milk, not milk in general.

Patience is a virtue not the patience is a virtue. Again, the patience would only refer to a specific kind of patience, such as you have the patience of a saint.

I have brown hair not I have the brown hair. Same as above.

There are cases when you can describe a general concept or class with either no article and plural, or definite article and singular. For instance:

French people love good wine or The French people love good wine

Lions are apex predators or The lion is an apex predator

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    I think your initial French point is extremely relevant. I wouldn't say I'm exactly fluent in French, but so far as I know it's tu as les yeux bleus, whereas Anglophones would never include an article there except in unusual / contrived contexts. – FumbleFingers Jan 7 at 17:53
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    This answer is the closest to explaining why "I have the brown eyes" is not normally used in English. – Mari-Lou A Jan 8 at 8:49
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There is no plural indefinite article in English, and this is a situation that would take an indefinite article.

I have a large nose.

I have small ears.

I have ten fingers.

I have a broken leg.

Why the indefinite article? Here's the OED definition of a:

Used in an indefinite noun phrase referring to something not specifically identified (and, frequently, mentioned for the first time) but treated as one of a class: one, some, any (the oneness, or indefiniteness, being implied rather than asserted).

Emphasis mine. Roughly speaking, there are lots of large noses in the world, and the speaker in my first example is stating that they have one of them.

In certain contexts, the definite article might be appropriate, as Tᴚoɯɐuo mentions: when the characteristic being referred to is the only one in the set of people under discussion, such as when looking at photograph, or identifying a person in a room.

[Looking at a photograph] Q: Which are you? A: I'm the one with the large nose.

This only works because the answerer is the only person in the photograph with a large nose.

What if the photograph had several people with large noses, and several people with red hats, but the answerer was the only person with both? Indefinite articles.

A: I'm the one with a large nose and a red hat.

And if these were plural, we would use the plural indefinite if it existed, but since it does not, we use nothing:

A: I'm the one with a large nose and brown eyes.

  • There is no plural indefinite article in English So, is the definite article misplaced here? “That's me, who is marching the penguins, in the photo. The penguins all come from Argentina.” – Mari-Lou A Jan 8 at 8:36
  • If I say “That's me, who is blinking the eyes, in the photo.” that sounds weird in English but at the same time, it is grammatical. Or is it? – Mari-Lou A Jan 8 at 8:48
  • Your first example is correct, although it would also be correct without the definite article. Using the definite article implies that there is only one set of penguins being marched. The definite article in the second sentence is required because the penguins being referred to have already been identified. – Matthew W Jan 8 at 16:16
  • The second example is incorrect. In this context, you would say "blinking my eyes". I'm not sure I can articulate a rule for why the possessive is required here. It may simply be idiomatic that the object of an action verb needs a possessive adjective when referring to a singular (or all of a plural) body part. For instance, I might "scratch an ear" or "scratch my ear", but "scratch my ears" and "scratch my left ear". – Matthew W Jan 8 at 16:25
  • "Blinking my eyes" would be exactly what I would say too :) But in Italian the definite article is used for the parts of the body, so, literally, Italians will say "I broke the leg myself" (mi sono rotta la gamba (singular feminine)) The his eyes are blue (i suoi occhi sono blu (plural masculine)) – Mari-Lou A Jan 8 at 17:28
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Something no one else has mentioned is that “the eyes” is not a possessive expression. So “I have the brown eyes” does not include the implication that your eyes are yours. While that is acceptable for part of a collection of objects (ie a bunch of boxes of artificial eyes), you would not ordinarily leave that out for body parts.

So, if asked which arm was hurt, you could say “the left” as a complete sentence, but you wouldn’t say “the left arm was hurt”, it would always be “my left arm was hurt”.

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'The' here would suggest that you have special kind of brown eyes.and Many people can have brown eyes which doesn't make having brown eyes unique. For ex-The sun-it means there is only one sun(well in our solar system) Hence if we say The brown eyes-it means there is only one pair of this kind of eyes. Another example-He is the man who killed her.It means there is only one special definite single person who killed her.

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