I asked a very similar question before, but sorry, I still don't fully get it. For example

He mocked the use of sanitizers (during the pandemic).

Would it be specific enough for 'the' if there's no 'during the pandemic' (like, in that imaginary person's opinion, using sanitizers is funny generally speaking)? Would it be specific enough if there is 'during the pandemic'? Or would it be specific enough only if some particular instance is implied (for example, using sanitizers in a certain establishment during the pandemic, not generally)? I mean, you always say 'If it's specific, use 'the''. But there are multiple "layers" or "levels" of specificness. At which one is it specific enough for the definitive article? It's not all that obvious for a non-native speaker.

Edit: Some objected to using 'usage' so I replaced it with 'use'.

  • There is no definitive answer here. Some people would prefer to include the article, where other wouldn't. Just as some people would use use rather than usage. It doesn't really make much if any difference whether you include additional clauses or not. Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 16:42
  • @FumbleFingers Could you please elaborate? Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 17:32
  • 1
    There isn't really anything useful to say here. See this NGram showing that on average people prefer to include the article in such contexts. But I suggest that in very few cases does the speaker give any consideration to the idea of 'If it's specific, use 'the'' when deciding whether to include the highlighted word in [We] recommend the use of...* Commented Feb 18, 2021 at 12:20
  • (It's mostly just a meaningless "stylistic choice" in such contexts. The "less favoured" choice of usage rather than use sticks out more than any decision regarding the article in the cited example context. And even that isn't particularly significant.) Commented Feb 18, 2021 at 12:20
  • 1
    That sentence is not great and sounds non-native. It should be: the use of sanitizers, not usage. In any case, the use of "the" is always about something specific. The use of sanitizers is not the use of soap.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 20, 2021 at 15:20

5 Answers 5


Since you asked for a reputable source, I am going to begin in this answer with a reputable source and then move on to the specifics.

What you are asking about is the usage of the definite article "the" alongside noun phrases (NP) structured around the preposition "of". "A of B" is an interesting structure, because you have a noun, the head of the NP, followed by a prepositional phrase. Therefore, syntactically the structure of the phrase is:

A [of B]
use [of sanitizers] (non-count of count plural)
a page [of a book] (indefinite count singular of count singular)
the branch [of a tree] (definite count singular of count singular)
the eyes [of the man] (definite count plural of definite count singular)

where A is the head of the NP and determines the definiteness and grammatical number of the NP.

Count Singular NPs

Huddleston and Pullum in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) (Huddleston & Pullum 2002) differentiate between count singular NPs and plural/non-count NPs with the definite article. Their analysis is pretty concise and undeveloped and this usage is sort of glossed in passing. I am going to give an outline here. On page 369, Huddleston and Pullum suggest that when a count singular NP takes the definite article, identifiability and uniqueness are key.

There are a couple cases associated with this usage. It could be that the speaker recognizes there is only one entity relevant to the conversation, which is the specificity you mentioned in your question. Also it could be that there is no need to identify the specific A. This comes a bit counter-intuitive, as it almost looks as the opposite of the specificity principle, but in context it makes sense.

Why don't you put the key in the pocket of my jacket?
He married the daughter of his bank manager.

There is possibly more than one pocket on the jacket, but in asking that "you put the key in the pocket of my jacket", the speaker implies that in their mind there is no need to identify which pocket they would like to key to go into. And the speaker doesn't really expect the other party to ask "Which one?" because the speaker expects the listener to understand from the use of the definite article and a singular count noun that any one would do is implied in the sentence. Similarly, the bank manager may have more than one daughter, but there is only one relevant in the context. Maybe other daughters are unknown to the listener, or already married. This hinges on the speaker's perspective and expectation. (I agree with LawrenceC on this part.)

Plural and non-count NPs

This part concerns your question at issue more than the first part does. Huddleston and Pullum group these two together and give the explanation that use of the definition article together with plural or non-count NPs is indicative of totality. This section in the book is really short and not really well-explained, but here is the idea in my own words. When you say:

I hate the residents of that tall building.

You are saying you hate all of them. You are taking all the people living in that building as a whole, as a collective unity, and you hate that collective unity. It doesn't matter if someone has just moved in yesterday, you still hate them. Probably because you want to buy the land that building is sitting on and anyone living there is in your way. So you hate them all. But if you say:

I hate residents of that tall building.

There is much less of an assertion that "everybody in that building is hated". You are instead saying you hate some, maybe most, people living in that building for some reason. It could also be everyone in the building that you hate, but without the definite article you are not making that strong of a statement. Maybe you live close by and you are annoyed by the constant noise coming from that building. You don't know who causes the noise. You only know it is from that building. So it's very likely that only a small number of people are responsible for the noise-making.

The same goes for non-count NPs. I am going to explain this part in detail later using your sentence and some other sentences as examples.

Existential presupposition

It is important to note that when someone uses the definite article "the" they presuppose the existence of the entity and the other party is expected to identify the entity because it is assumed to exist in the first place. This is very relevant to your sentence.

Your sentence

Now let's look at cases of non-count NPs and specifically the sentence at issue.

He mocked the use of sanitizers during the pandemic.

The inclusion of the definite article makes the NP definite and thus presupposes the existence of "the use of sanitizers". Namely, when you say this, you are saying you know for sure sanitizers are or have been used during the pandemic. Does the adverbial "during the pandemic" make it more likely that the definite article "the" is used? Maybe. The key here is totality, remember? When you specify a time period (temporal qualification) or a location (spatial qualification), you are making the total entity being referred to more identifiable. But still, it is perfectly fine to say "He mocked the use of sanitizers." if you are talking about the act of using sanitizers, like every time that someone uses a sanitizer is counted.

When you say

He mocked use of sanitizers during the pandemic.

You are not presupposing that this phenomenon indeed exists. This sentence lean (slightly) denotatively towards that it may or may not be the case that people are using sanitizers during the pandemic. It is less strong, less assertive. Also you are not taking it as a collective unity. You are talking instead about an specified number of instances where stanitizers are used. You could be commenting on his behavior towards some instances of sanitizer use.

Similar examples

This point may be better driven home with some other examples with nominalized verbs in the same construction (all of the examples are from native speakers):

Miki sought to compromise by agreeing to inclusion of an anti-hegemony clause with wording that would hopefully soften its anti-Soviet connotation. (source)

If the negotiating process leads to inclusion of an early-termination option, it must prohibit the sponsor from arbitrarily or suddenly terminating the agreement or decreasing pledged funding prior to the expected term (source: American Association of University Professors)

These two examples are sentences sans article where inclusion is talked about as an not-yet-certain and less-than-definite matter.

Thanks for being such an exemplar of mentoring, the inclusion of diversity, impactful scholarly writing, and generosity, not just for us, but, for our field.

In this sentence "the inclusion of diversity" has already happened and is being taken as a concrete example in acknowledgement.

Some clinicians make greater efforts than others to encourage generalization of socially skilled behaviors outside of the therapeutic context. (source)

This is another article-less example that talks about "generalization of socially skilled behaviors" as a general concept. The speaker could have some instances of it happening in mind when speaking, or none at all. The point is that there is no totality to speak of in this sentence.


You should also note that the nuances and shades of meaning are there depending on whether the definite article is used or not, but not everybody follows this in actual speech. That's why as FumbleFingers has explained it could be subjective. This answer points you to likelihood. That is to say, in some contexts when the conditions that I have explained are met, it is more likely that people will use the definite article. But still it is not an ironclad rule. For example, even if I am talking about all the residents in a building, I might still say "I hate residents of that building." But tomorrow I might include the definite article when I talk about the same matter again.


Btw, I agree with Lambie that "usage" sounds foreign (non-native). I think the reason you see usage a lot these days is probably due to the influence of it being used in the IT and other high tech industries (cf. CPU usage, RAM usage) and that a lot of non-native speakers working in these industries use this word.

  • Frankly, I think an answer like this goes straight over people's heads. I think it's better to give examples, and after the example quote the source of the authority. My eyes just glaze over with answers like these....:)
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 22, 2021 at 19:26
  • @Lambie Yeah you are right. Oh well, I did spend the better part of an hour writing this... Maybe I will try to reorganize this answer if the mood strikes (not really likely though).
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Feb 22, 2021 at 19:34
  • I know what you mean. :)
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 22, 2021 at 19:52
  • I think I got the second part of your answer. But what would this mean, "Why don't you put the key in A pocket of my jacket?" The same as "Why don't you put the key in THE pocket of my jacket?"? Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 14:35
  • @SergeyZolotarev In a lot of situations they would mean the same. But you are more likely to hear the version with the definition article.
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 17:10

A speaker or writer is going to use the X if he/she assumes the listener or reader should know which X the speaker or writer means.

A lot of posts here say the X is used when one is talking about a specific X.

The missing part in most if not all of these posts is that when a speaker/writer says the X, the speaker/writer's point of view is what controls what is specific or not--far less than any objective criteria of what's specific or not.

The listener/reader's point of view may not match. That's fine and happens all the time, especially if you are new to a conversation. That means you as listener/reader either have to ask a question (which/what X do you mean?), make an assumption (he/she probably means this X), or pretend you know until later (this is my boss so I'll go with the safest X).

There's a couple of things with articles as well to keep in mind.

  • English really wants nouns tagged with a determiner unless they are A) plural or B) talking about the type/kind of X, versus an actual X.

    • Many languages have word endings to indicate when a word is being used/meant as a noun. English does not, so determiners are important to signal when a word is a noun. So often the becomes a "default" determiner when no other would apply.
  • When someone is talking or writing and they have a list of things they are discussing, or something they mention comes from a list of possible things, the question which X becomes important to the speaker. So this is another reason why a speaker/writer might say the X.

    • This is why usage and the usage work in the example in your post. Basically, "He mocked X", but there were other things that he may have done different things to.
  • If the wasn't used, then we're meaning "usage of sanitizers" in the abstract, and not implying that other things (a "list") existed.


In examples like yours, the article is optional, so you won't get a definite answer about it.

To help you understand, remember that, when you say "use of santizers", this is collectively a noun for an activity.

Consider as an example:

  • handwashing is important
  • washing hands is important
  • washing of hands is important
  • the washing of hands is important

All of the above mean the same thing, and all of the permutations of "hand washing" are names for the action, or activity, of washing hands.

When speaking about something in general terms, there are often ways to express it with, or without an article. For example:

  • Families are an important part of society
  • The family is an important part of society.
  • I don't think the article is optional in X of Y. "He mocked use of sanitizers" is not grammatical. The washing of hands = washing hands. "He mocked using sanitizers".
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 22, 2021 at 19:54

On the other answers:

Lawrence's answer sums to:

  • specificity is author-determined
  • English likes to use articles, "the" and "a"/"an"
  • "the" is a like a verbal "highlighter"
  • removing "the" makes things more abstracte

Eddie's (smart but mouthful of an) answer sums to:

  • You have a noun phrase (NP) in your sentence
  • There are different kinds of noun phrases
    • Singular
    • Plural
    • Non-countable
  • "The" considers implicit deletions
    • one pocket of many (put the keys in the pocket)
    • one daughter of many (marry the banker's daughter)
  • Use "the" if it can encapsulate the noun in totality
  • Use "the" if there's a clear temporal or spatial distinction

(Note: "noun phrases" should be treated precisely as a regular "noun" would. )

Your examples:

Would it be specific enough for 'the' if there's no 'during the pandemic'...?


Would it be specific enough if there is 'during the pandemic'?


Or would it be specific enough only if some particular instance is implied (for example, using sanitizers in a certain establishment during the pandemic, not generally)?


There are multiple "layers" or "levels" of specificness.

I shall address this now:

If there's something to compare the noun to, "the" may be used.

If you're looking up at the stars, you don't say "the space", because there's no other "space" to compare it to.

If you're looking at a bedroom, you say, "We like the space" because there are other spaces to compare it to.

For absolute clarity, "the" should be used when you want to "cut out" and highlight one thing from many.

Whether it's singular, plural, countable or not, if you can "carve out" a bit of it from a greater whole, you can (or need to) use "the".

Singular: "The mouse from the wall" (compared to the whole of "all mice" or the whole of "all animals") Plural: "The people from New York" (compared to the whole of all people) Non-countable: "The fire" (compared to the whole of all fires)

Mathematically speaking, if X is a subset of some Y, then "the" may be used.

I'll leave it at that.


He mocked the usage of sanitizers (during the pandemic).

He mocked the usage of sanitizers.

He mocked usage of sanitizers (during the pandemic).

He mocked usage of sanitizers.

In the first two that there's no question if the sentence sounds right, or is right grammatically.

The third one sounds good, because the is just another word in a long sentence, and in these cases, English favors removing words to shorten the sentence.

The fourth one sounds funny, because there's not enough words and the article is conspicuous by its absence.

Use the article unless you have a good reason not to do so.

  • 3
    I'm sure use would be more common than usage in the exact context here, and it's also bound to be true that the definite article is more likely than not. But I wouldn't say the article-less version sounds "funny". It's just less common (but gaining traction, as that NGram link implies). Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 16:47

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