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When we talk and already have a context, can we omit components such as "the", "of" or "in"?

In the examples below, I want to talk about the students of Harvard University only, but I don't want to repeat "the students of Harvard University" because that is too long.

I came up with a few alternatives like these below. Which are acceptable to you? I guess that with a clear enough context, all of these are correct, right?

(1) When you were at Harvard University, were students asked to do voluntary work?

(2) When you were at Harvard University, were the students asked to do voluntary work?

(3) When you were at Harvard University, were the students of the university asked to do voluntary work?

(4) When you were at Harvard University, were the students at the university asked to do voluntary work?

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    Suppose the question had been When you were at Harvard University, were students exempt from conscription? In that case it would be almost 100% certain that with no article, questioner is asking whether all students in the country were exempt - but with the article it would unambiguously be specifically asking about Harvard students. That same distinction would apply to your own example, but because of the exact context, yours is potentially much more ambiguous (there's more chance of the "less likely" interpretation being correct). Dec 18, 2020 at 12:11
  • It's hard to imagine any native speaker thinking that if the questioner said the students, but failed to include at the university, he might actually be talking about students at some other university. But that's basic logic, not really even about language in general, let alone English semantics or syntax. Dec 18, 2020 at 12:16
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    It's all a matter of context and Grice's Maxims. We assume that When you were at Harvard University is contextually relevant to the question. But that relevance could be because of the time (when), in which case it could easily be asking about students in general, across the country. OR it could be more about the place (Harvard), in which case it's probably asking about those students. In a real-world context this might be obvious anyway, but you could certainly disambiguate using "students there". Dec 19, 2020 at 12:01
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    @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica The materials you provided helped me a lot and have enabled me to understand the subtle differences more. Thank you :)
    – vincentlin
    Dec 20, 2020 at 13:39
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    I quite like the first example in the top answer to the linked question: I adopted two cats. Cats / The cats, long ago, were worshipped as gods. Including the article (the) there would be "quirky", but if you're happy to accept that doing so is at least "syntactically valid" (but it has to mean my cats were worshipped) then I think you've got the key message from Grice's Maxims (which imho should be taught to everyone who wants to learn a foreign language; you can learn your native language without being aware of these maxims, but they're important for "foreign" languages). Dec 20, 2020 at 15:12

1 Answer 1

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All of 1-4 are grammatically valid, and fluent speakers and writers use such language all the time. (1) is potentially ambiguous, as several comments have pointed out. "students" could me "students at Harvard University", or "all students everywhere", or some other group of students. changing it to "the students", as in (2), clarifies that and makes the meaning of "students at Harvard University" more explicit. There is no significant change in meaning between (2), (3), and (4). Additional context might further clarify (1), but the addition of "the" is a very quick and easy way to make the intention clear.

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