I see a paragraph in a book:

Editors of newspapers and magazines often go to extremes to provide their readers with unimportant facts and statistics. Last year a journalist had been instructed by a well-known magazine to write an article on the president's palace in a new African republic. When the article arrived, the editor read the first sentence and then refused to publish it. The article began: 'Hundreds of steps lead to the high wall which surrounds the president's palace.' The editor at once sent the journalist a fax instructing him to find out the exact number of steps and the height of the wall.

May you tell me why not add the before the last steps

  • It's perfectly natural in English to use the "zero article" in such contexts, before a plural noun (but the definite article is required before the singular noun wall). Also note that the article before height can be "deleted" because it's a "predictably repeated" element in the parallel construction to find out the X and [to find out] [the] Y. Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 16:15
  • @FumbleFingers If there is ‘walls’, should I add ‘the’ before ‘walls’?
    – Y. zeng
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 0:40
  • He could have been told to find out the exact number of steps and height of walls. That's perfectly valid, and it's also possible to include the before height AND/OR walls there. I don't know how to explain why, but whereas all those permutations are idiomatically at least "acceptable", I think almost no native speaker would ever endorse putting the in front of steps in your original example. Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 12:50

1 Answer 1


It's not necessary. "the number of ____s" is the ordinary way to phrase counts of objects, not referring to "the steps" as in "the color of the steps", but to "how many steps there were".

  • If it is as you said, why did the author add ‘the’ before the last ‘wall’? Just because ‘wall’ doesn’t contain ‘s’?
    – Y. zeng
    Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 13:14
  • @Y.zeng No, if there were two walls it would be "the height of the walls" but "the number of walls".
    – Dan Getz
    Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 13:17
  • Why should we add ‘the’ before ‘walls’ not before ‘steps’?
    – Y. zeng
    Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 13:20
  • @Y.zeng in "the number of walls" there is no "the" before "walls", the same as for steps. They are not different in that case.
    – Dan Getz
    Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 13:22
  • 1
    I should have waited for your response before swanning off to ELU and asking “The number of Xs” - why no article? (at least you've provided a second attribute alongside "number" that has this syntactic constraint). Is it to do with whether or not the attribute (number, quantity, length,...) could / does attach to individual members of the set being referenced, as opposed to "all of them collectively"? It's still "odd" to me. Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 13:35

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