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As far as I know, "the," as a definite article, is used to designate something already mentioned. However, this Economist article begins with

IF TRADE is the lifeblood of the world economy, then the ships that perform the mundane task of transporting goods and raw materials from where they are produced to where they are wanted are the red corpuscles. In 2004, the world's fleets carried around 90% of total global exports worth $8.9 trillion, largely unnoticed. This year, however, shipping firms are attracting the attention of investors as never before. On August 11th Seaspan, a container-ship firm spun out of Canada's Washington Marine, became the biggest of many shipping initial public offerings (IPOs) this year with a $600m listing of its shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

despite no attention mentioned beforehand. Likewise, Google shows about 200,200 results for "drawing the attention of researchers" but 45,500 results for "drawing attention of researchers" instead, 188,000 for "attracting the attention of researchers" but 59,400 for "attracting attention of researchers", 110,000 for "catching the attention of investors" but 11,500 for ""catching attention of investors, and so on. Without the the, does This year, however, shipping firms are attracting attention of investors as never before. sound incorrect or unnatural?

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4 Answers 4

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The definite article is not used to designate something already mentioned. Consider the archetypal simple English sentence “The cat sat on the mat.” Neither the cat nor the mat has been previously mentioned. The definite article is used to refer to a specific item rather than one of a class. “The cat sat on the mat” means that a specific cat sat on a specific mat. “A cat sat on a mat” means that some cat sat on some mat, but it doesn’t matter which cat or which mat.

In the context you’re talking about, “the attention of investors” is specific and needs the definite article. “...shipping forms are attracting attention of investors...” is ungrammatical (but “...shipping firms are attracting attention from investors...” would be perfectly acceptable, because in that context “attention” is abstract, not specific).

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  • Thanks for your help—now I am trying to follow this reasoning. It seems of investors is connected to not the sentence but attention so the is necessary, while from investors is connected to the sentence rather than attention so the is unnecessary? But what if "...shipping forms are attracting the attention from investors..." then? Sep 5, 2020 at 19:21
  • @JunyongKim No, you couldn’t say “attracting the attention from investors”, because that would imply it’s some specific attention which doesn’t work in that context. Unless you go on something like this, which would make it specific: “...attracting the intention from investors that we hoped to see.”
    – Mike Scott
    Sep 6, 2020 at 6:42
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The definite article “the” denotes that a definite thing is being referred to, rather than the abstract idea of that thing. You can specify which thing in the first mention.

  • We are attracting attention.

Here, we have not specified whose attention, so it is still abstract. We cannot use a definite article for an abstract thing.

  • We are attracting the attention of researchers.

Here, we have specified which attention (that of researchers) we are attracting, so we can use the definite article.

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  • Thanks for your help, but then shouldn't every noun followed by of be preceded by the? For example, (1) There are three groups. and (2) The leaders of the groups deliver the final presentations. In this case, isn't the The optional, according to this old silly post of mine? Sep 5, 2020 at 19:36
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    @JunyongKim It would be “of the researchers” if you meant specific researchers, but just “of researchers” if you meant it as an abstract group.
    – StephenS
    Sep 5, 2020 at 19:39
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In English, "attention" (like many other abstract concepts) is treated as an uncountable mass noun.* Such nouns never receive an indefinite article, and will receive a definite article when (and only when) they refer to a specific instance or portion of the substance or concept they describe.

In particular, mass nouns in English normally receive a definite article whenever they're followed by "of", since the possessive construction serves to define which instance or portion of the noun is being referred to — namely that belonging to whatever follows the word "of". Thus, in phrases like "the attention of investors", "the voice of the people", "the light of the sun", "the faith of a child", "the blood of soldiers", etc. the possessed mass nouns all receive a definite article, regardless of whether the possessor is definite or not.

What might be confusing you is that, in your example quote, the possessor "investors" is not marked with a definite article, and indeed the context leaves it rather unclear which specific investors it might be talking about. But, nonetheless, if we knew which investors those were, then we would know exactly what attention was being referred to — namely that of those specific investors. And in English, that's enough to justify marking the word "attention" as definite in this phrase.


*) The English word "attention" also has the secondary meaning of "a display of (often romantic) interest or concern", in which sense it is treated as a count noun and typically used in the plural. But that's clearly not the sense in which the word is used here.

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  • Thanks for your clarification. So a mass noun followed by of is preceded by the because it is specified enough. I then found this paper saying "The present study provides evidence for a link between behavior of dogs in a novel setting and physiological measures taken immediately after." Shouldn't it be the behavior of dogs since uncountable? Sep 6, 2020 at 15:11
  • Here is another example—this paper says "Indeed, recent laboratory experiments and field studies present evidence of evolution and local adaptation of marine microbial strains and populations in response to environmental factors," but shouldn't it be the evidence of evolution since uncountable? Sep 6, 2020 at 15:23
  • @JunyongKim: In the first example, yes, "the behavior of dogs" would sound more correct and idiomatic to me. Your second example, however, is a genuine exception: "evidence of [something]" is rarely definite (unless referring to some previously mentioned or otherwise specific evidence), since we're rarely talking about all evidence of something (which a definite article would otherwise imply). In this case, the evidence doesn't really belong to evolution, but merely pertains to it — and, without reading further, we don't know which evidence pertaining to evolution it might be. Sep 6, 2020 at 16:53
  • Yes, it seems "evidence of" site:wsj.com (32,800 results) dominates "the evidence of" site:wsj.com (3,240 results). Nevertheless, it seems the form "the uncountable of something" is still more common than "uncountable of something" according to your explanation. Would there be some more examples of the latter version such as evidence of? Sep 6, 2020 at 19:51
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As others have mentioned, I think there are two ways of saying this that sound natural:

  • Shipping firms are attracting the attention of investors.
  • Shipping firms are attracting attention from investors.

For now, I will mostly talk about the phrase "the attention of investors."

The word "the" is often used to indicate "all of it" or "all of them." For example, if I say "I took the batteries out of the box," that can mean that I took out all of the batteries. (It can also mean that I took out the batteries that I previously mentioned.) On the other hand, if I say "I took batteries out of the box," that implies that I took out some unspecified quantity of batteries.

I think that when we say "the attention of investors," we are saying that, for each investor, we captured all of that person's attention (so to speak), rather than only part of that person's attention. The phrase "the attention of investors" asks us to imagine some investors, and then imagine that the attention of those investors has been attracted completely, rather than partially.

On the other hand, I think the phrase "attracting attention from investors" asks us to imagine some unspecified quantity of attention, and then tells us who that attention belongs to: namely, investors.

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  • Thanks for these details—then, for example, I can think of (1) a person taking out all the batteries inside from a remote controller with "I took the batteries out," and (2) a clerk in an office supply store unboxing batteries and displaying them with "I took batteries out?" Then draw the (full) attention of researchers would be stronger than draw (some) attention from researchers. Sep 6, 2020 at 19:05

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