After all, we are talking about very definite passengers – the ones that were on that train. Can it be gathered from the sentence that not all of the passengers were given a refund?

P.S. The sentence comes from a grammar book.

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    Other people have answered why it can be dropped, but it's worth noting "Since the train was delayed for more than an hour, the passengers were given a full refund." would be perfectly acceptable if it's confusing to drop the article.
    – Roy
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 16:24

3 Answers 3


The sentence

Since the train was delayed for more than an hour, passengers were given a full refund.

is formally ambiguous. One cannot tell from the sentence alone whether the passengers were given a refund -- that is, all the passengers -- or whether only some passengers were given a refund: perhaps only those who complained. When an article is elided in this way, the reader must determine from context and common sense what the meaning is, and which article is implied. Here either choice is possible, although "the" seems more likely. But in another context the result would be different.

After the minister's eulogy, friends and family spoke about the deceased.

Does that mean that every one of the dead person's friends and family spoke, or only some of them? Were all of them even present? "Some" is the likely choice here, but further context could change that.

After the minister's eulogy, friends and family spoke about the deceased -- all five who were still alive.

Now the implication is otherwise.

When the choice of article is obvious, omitting it does not mislead the reader. When there is more than one serious possibility, this may be poor writing. Or it may be intentionally ambiguous writing.

  • 7
    It's not even clear that "the passengers" would remove the ambiguity; it still requires context. Consider "Since the train was cancelled, the passengers were given a full refund". Who exactly are the passengers on a cancelled train? Those who have actually boarded? Those who have reserved seats on that particular service? The article "the" doesn't help answer these questions. Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 22:48
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    @Michael Kay True. But 'the" indicates that what ever the group is, all members, not just selected ones, got refunds. There is only so much meaning to be gotten from a simple little article. As Humpty Dumpty said, "When I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra.". Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 23:49
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    Yes it tells you that everyone in the group got a refund. But without telling you what the group is, that's not very useful. Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 8:17
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    "When the train was ten minutes late leaving, a few people started to grumble. When twenty minutes had passed, it had turned into a roar. At the forty-five minute mark, twenty-seven separate passengers had lodged formal complaints. Since the train was delayed for more than an hour, the passengers were given a full refund." We have a lot more context, and yet we still don't know if all passengers or just those twenty-seven were given the refund. It's often hard to remove all ambiguity. Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 13:04
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    Technically "passengers" might not even mean any of the passengers on the train that was delayed, they could run a lottery and give refunds to other passengers. But common sense makes this an unlikely meaning.
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 20:55

It could be a stylistic reason, because "the" has already been used for "the train", so "passengers" reads better. It is possibly from a newspaper article. Your reasoning is correct, the refund concerns these specific passengers.

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    I've never heard anyone propose that the word "the" should be omitted simply because it's already used in a sentence. Nobody would say "The cat sat on mat", for example, or advocate changing it to "The cat sat on matting" to avoid the repetition. As far as I can see, your first sentence is just wrong. Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 11:13
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    If it's a headline (or even subheadline) from a newspaper, characters count, so they make many omissions which hurt clarity. Example: headlines often omit the oxford comma. (More true in the past with more fixed fonts - now they could tweak it to be font-size 23.5 if needed, to fit in another character or word. ) Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 13:00
  • Other articles were not omitted, though.
    – Zak
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 13:14
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    In news titles it would probably be "Train late, passengers given refund". Why reserve space for all those useless words :-). Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 14:48

The main takeaway (for me) from reading that sentence is that the railway company admitted responsibility for the delay, and followed through on that admission by actually giving out full refunds. Who exactly got those refunds (all passengers, or just some passengers), and what they had to do in order to get them isn't part of the information that that sentence is trying to convey. Therefore it is left unspecific.

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