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We had a discussion earlier on another SE site and I'm not able to find a definitive answer online. If I say, speaking generally:

The life is beautiful

I know this is not the common way of saying it and any people with a reasonably good English level will find that strange and prefer "Life is beautiful". But is this grammatically correct?

All online resources I checked about the "The" article give many examples and mention "It's not required", "not needed", "we usually don't use it" in such situation; but I failed to find a resource telling it's forbidden or a mistake.

45

Typically, when we say something is beautiful, we would not use a definite article if we are talking about an abstract noun:

  • Patience is beautiful.
  • Courage is beautiful.
  • Compassion is beautiful.
  • Life is beautiful.

Adding a definite article to any of those sentences would sound "off".

However, if we somehow qualify the noun, we can use the definite article:

  • The patience of a schoolteacher is beautiful.
  • The courage of the knight is beautiful.
  • The compassion he showed was beautiful.
  • The life of a queen is beautiful.

I think we prefer to say things like, "It's not idiomatic" instead of, "It's a mistake" because we can often imagine a context where a sentence might work just fine, despite the fact that it sounds so unusual as a standalone sentence. For example, if we were to write something like this:

Thoreau learned and taught that a deep reverence for nature could lead to a more fulfilling life. The way is simple. The life is beautiful. And sometimes the only things holding us back are our own fears and insecurities.

then the sentence sounds just fine. We are talking about a particular life (we might even say a particular way of life), not life in general, so the definite article actually helps get our meaning across.

  • 2
    I decided to accept this answer as it seems a perfect blend of many others (which I upvoted) and comments. So grammatically speaking the sentence is not wrong because in some contexts it is correct. But it also means in some other contexts it might be non-idiomatic enough as to be considered incorrect. Thanks everybody for the answers. – Laurent S. Aug 23 at 6:45
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    @LaurentS. I'd go a step further than that and say if you're using the sentence to mean life in general is beautiful, not a specific life, then your sentence is flat out incorrect. – Kat Aug 23 at 17:47
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    Without qualification a sentence like "The life is beautiful" leads one to ask, "Which life?". It's not that the sentence is incorrect. It's that it leaves you wondering exactly what is meant. It's like saying the time is "half past". Half past what? You need some context to sort it out. – candied_orange Aug 24 at 7:06
25

In additional to Whiskeychief's excellent answer which covers the standard case perfectly ...

There is a relatively unusual class of uses where "the" is required, and that is where there is a particular instance, normally one which is previously referenced.

  • Q: What do you think of a banker's life?
  • A: The life is awful but the rewards are high.
  • Q: What do you think of a poet's life?
  • A: The life is beautiful but the rewards are small.

Here you can think of "the life" as a contraction of "the life of a banker/poet": it's a previously referenced (hence definite) countable use of an abstract noun.

This is also used for the expression "Ah, this is the life!", which means the speaker considers that she/he is living very well.

  • This is a great point. Do you mind if I add this to my answer? – whiskeychief Aug 22 at 18:16
  • @whiskeychief don't mind at all, just cut and paste it in or rewrite as you please. – jonathanjo Aug 22 at 19:06
8

Yes, Life is beautiful

You're quite right:

  • ✔️ Yes: Life is beautiful.
  • No: The life is beautiful.

"Life" is correct, if you mean the phenomenon of life everywhere -- all human life, the experience of living, all life on Earth.

When to Drop the "the"

There are plenty of "authoritative" articles showing when the definite article the should be used:

But there are a few resources that will show you when to drop "the". This writer, David Appleyard, calls it the "zero article":

No article is needed before abstract nouns used in a general sense.

  • Love is all you need.
  • Crime is a growing problem in the inner cities.

--- David Appleyard, "Guide to Article Usage in English; When to use a, an, the or nothing at all" | Permalink

Appleyard provides about 15 examples of when to drop the article "the"-- company names, sports, streets, single mountains, and it's well worth a read.

  • ✔️ Carol saw her brother on (_) television.
  • ✔️ Her flight leaves from (_) gate 32.
  • ✔️ He used to spend several months at (_) sea. --- Article | Permalink

Here is a similar reference with a few examples:

"When not to use the Definite Article", www.englishteachermelanie.com, 2012 | Permalink

  • 1
    There are professions that are referred to by it's practitioners, as "The Life." In that case, "The life is beautiful" is perfectly fine. – Ring Aug 22 at 11:12
  • Ring, Can you give an example? I don’t understand. – whiskeychief Aug 22 at 15:43
  • ew.com/tv/2019/05/29/lin-manuel-miranda-fosse-verdon-finale <-Related to show business baltimoresun.com/news/bal-rodricks072405-column.html < Related to drug dealers. I've heard it in conversation with older taxi drivers, entertainers, writers, and sex workers. Unfortunately, Google's results are very slanted towards sex workers and criminals, so I couldn't find better examples. – Ring Aug 22 at 16:12
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    Now I understand and agree. In the quotation: “they couldn’t get out of the life”, This is a different meaning of the word “life”. It is almost always used with “the”, as “the life.” It means a specific mode of living, for example being a criminal, or a dancer, or a taxi driver, or a showbiz performer. It specifically means a lifestyle led by a subgroup of society. It emphasizes how different their way of life, or career is, from “average” people. – whiskeychief Aug 22 at 18:10
  • Ah, you gave a much better explanation than I. Thanks! – Ring Aug 26 at 16:35
6

I'd say it's perfectly grammatical, i.e. it is syntactically valid. But it makes little sense semantically because it immediately provokes the question "What life?" instead of conveying the idea of life in general. So, it's not forbidden, but you should definitely omit the article: "Life is beautiful."

5

Both are perfectly correct, they just express different ideas. "Life is beautiful" generally means your life, or life in general. But if you happened for instance to be one of the oceanologists exploring deep sea vents, you might say something like "Gosh, there's life down here, and the life is beautiful!"

3

I just wanted to add another more technical answer for those who might want a more thorough explanation than just, "this is the way we do it."

Definiteness markers like the actually do quite a few things to the meaning of a noun phrase:

(1) I fed cats yesterday.

(2) I fed the cats yesterday.

The main difference between (1) and (2) is that while I can use (1) to describe any random cats, (2) requires me to be talking about some cats that are identifiable -- that is, both I and the people I'm talking to can guess which specific cats they are. (If context doesn't specify otherwise, this usually refers to the cats that I own.) Let's call this property identifiability.

While identifiability is an important difference between phrases that use the and phrases that don't, when you say life is beautiful, life is in fact something identifiable. We all experience it and know of the concept, and clearly, using it without the article makes it very obvious what you're talking about. That is, it shouldn't be ambiguous what exact idea it refers to, unlike cats in (1). So why is it ungrammatical to use the?

The reason this might be difficult for a lot of English learners is that many languages have their version of the stop at identifiability. The English the, however, has extra requirements:

(1) I like cheese.

(2) I like the cheese.

(3) I like the cheese that tastes like mushrooms.

I could just randomly say sentence (1), referring to anything that can be called cheese (which is something most people can certainly identify), but sentence (2) doesn't work unless I'm literally pointing to some cheese, or the context implies there's only one cheese I could be talking about. Yet, sentence (3) is once again grammatical when spoken without context.

Native speakers will say that (2) only makes sense when the person who said the sentence and the people they're saying it to both know of a particular cheese in the context that stands out from all other cheese. For example, this might come up if they're critiquing a cheeseburger, but not if the person talking just wants to say they like cheese in general (e.g. more than peanut butter.) This is a stronger requirement than identifiability -- you don't just need to be able to pick something out, the thing needs to stand out by itself. (2) doesn't have anything making it stand out, so it relies on the context (such as the cheeseburger) to make it grammatical. However, (3) has the cheese naturally narrowed down by the language around it, so even though it refers to a general category like (1), it still stands out from other cheese.

The life is beautiful is just like case (1). The default context is everything, so unless, like jonathanjo brings up, there is a particular life that the context makes special, life simply does not stand out enough for the.

  • Not sure about this. Even in 3 I would omit the definite article. How many cheeses are there that taste like mushrooms? – MSalters Aug 22 at 22:17
  • Welcome to ELL stack exchange and thanks for the answer! Keep contributing! – whiskeychief Aug 22 at 23:19
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    @MSalters in a particular taste test — or if you’re looking at a cheese display at the market — it’s a perfectly valid usage. – whiskeychief Aug 22 at 23:21
-1

This is incorrect, it sounds as if it has been translated from a Romance language such as French or Spanish, where abstract nouns carry articles in front of them.

For example, in Spanish, it would be la vida es preciosa, where la is the feminine article.

  • Thanks. The discussion actually started in a thread about articles on french.SE so you're spot-on with your assumption. That said your answer doesn't bring any new information compared to the others and these others are much more nuanced about it being "incorrect", although in the context of the question I understood it is indeed an incorrect formulation. – Laurent S. Aug 23 at 13:58

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