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Let’s imagine the following situation: my friend gave me yesterday books. I put them into a box.

Now, I have noticed that we should name the box as

the box of books that my friend gave me

not as

the box of the books that my friend gave me

though outside the of-phrase we have to say

the books that my friend gave me

as in

Look! There are the books that my friend gave me.

What is the reasoning?

I think that native English speakers understand "the box of books" in "the box of books that he gave me" as a set of books which is contained in a box, books which are contained in a box, rather than a box with books. So there is no need to put "the" before "books" in "the box of books that he gave me", because "the" before "box of books" does the job ("the" refers to the books contained in the box). Am I right? Or there is a different logic behind this?

  • To be clear, there is nothing wrong with using the twice in your sentence. It's just not normally done because the meaning is clear enough without it and, everything being equal, it's easier to use the shorter sentence. (Incidentally, without your additional explanation, the sentence itself is ambiguous: Did your friend give you the box, the books in the box, or both?) – Jason Bassford Jan 25 at 15:09
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In the phrase box of books, the prepositional phrase of books doesn't refer to specific books but to the class or kind of item in the box.

A flock of geese flew overhead.

It's not a flock of ducks or a flock of blackbirds but a flock of geese.

There was a pile of books on the desk.

There was a box of books on the desk.

Even though the box contains specific books in your example, when indicating what kind of items the box contains, there's no need for the definite article; indeed the article would be wrong there, since it indicates specific items, not class of item. You can even express that idea adjectivally:

Toss this book in the book box.

Put this book on the book pile.

There, the goes with box and pile, not with book. The word book is a noun used adjectivally there, indicating the kind of pile or the kind of box, that is, one that has books in it and one that consists of books.

P.S.

A box of books = a box with books in it

A box of books he gave me = a box, with books in it, ambiguous with respect to whether you were given by him a box containing books, or given books by him which were later put in a box.

A box of the books he gave me = a box containing some of the books he gave you; this is a partitive construction; the set, from which a subset is taken, consists of "the books he gave me".

  • Could you give me some sources that support your claim? – piter00 Jan 24 at 21:34
  • If your friend had given you many, many books, so that more than one box was necessary (your example says otherwise, that you put the books into "a box"), and you were giving some of these books away, you could say This is a box of the books I was given. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 24 at 23:50
  • You wrote: "indeed the article would be wrong there, since it indicates specific items, not class of item". Does it apply only to the of-phrase? In "I like the books that he writes" we talk about a class of books rather than specific books on a desk, yet we have to use "the". – piter00 Jan 25 at 7:01
  • the books that he writes does not refer to a class of item but to specific or particular books, namely, those he writes. The word class as I'm using it refers to an abstract category. If you ask for "a cup of coffee" you're not referring to the contents of a particular vat or urn of dark liquid, but to the beverage in the abstract. In the same way, box of books does not refer to particular books. If someone asks you what is in the box, you can reply simply "Books" and your answer would lack all particularity except for the kind of thing in the box. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 25 at 11:49
  • If there were more boxes with the books that I was given, could I say "bring me a box of books that he gave me", without "the" before "books", when I want one of the boxes, no matter which? – piter00 Jan 25 at 11:53
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A second "the" would be redundant

In the phrase:

The box of books my friend gave me.

Using a single "the" means you are treating the box and its contents (the books from your friend) as a single unit or entity.

If you want refer to the box and its contents a separate entities, you would use the second "the" like so:

The box with the books my friend gave me.

  • Could you give me some sources that support your claim? Your answer is consistent with my understanding of the phrase, but I have got another answer which makes sense too. – piter00 Jan 24 at 21:01

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