12

I have a question about whether you should use "the" in a certain sentence.

Someone's children are playing in their yard when the ground is muddy because it just rained. When you are describing the children, which sentence can you use?

They seem to be enjoying the sound of their feet in the mud.

They seem to be enjoying the sound of their feet in mud.

My guess is that you are supposed to say "in the mud" because it is not just some regular mud but specific mud (the mud in the yard). Is my guess correct?

1
  • The exact same question could be asked for almost any uncountable natural substance — water, air, dirt, sand, etc. — and I suspect that for many of them it already has been. Perhaps we ought to have some kind of a canonical question for this. Aug 6 at 16:39
23

You are correct. If the mud has been explicitly mentioned, a subsequent mention should refer to the mud. This is also true if the mud can be easily understood from context. That seems to be the case here: it has rained, and the children are in a location where mud is likely to form. Even if the mud has not been mentioned, no one will be surprised if you refer to the mud.

As you have done, use the continuous tense to describe something that is occurring at the time the statement is being made.

Without the, your second sentence should be phrased more generically:

They seem to enjoy the sound of their feet in mud.

This is the kind of statement you might make after watching the children for an extended period, perhaps on multiple occasions. One use of the simple present is to describe ongoing states and habitual behaviors.

1
  • I don't think this is right, for the reasons explained in my answer.
    – user118305
    Aug 6 at 14:18
11

I don't think the previous answers are quite right. In all of the following examples, use of the article is idiomatic, and leaving it out is not idiomatic:

I like the way a flag looks waving in the wind.

Don't drag my name through the mud. (I.e., don't say bad things about me publicly that will hurt my reputation.)

Doug doesn't have enough sense to come in out of the rain.

My dog likes to go in the water and fetch the ball.

A native speaker would never omit "the" in any of these sentences. That's because wind, mud, rain, and water are universal elements of nature. None of these sentences carries the implication that the listener already knows which wind, mud, rain, or water. These are all general statements about any wind, mud, rain, or water.

Similarly, the article is required in the following:

Artemis is goddess of the hunt.

Again, the idea is that "the hunt" is an abstract universal thing. Because it's universal, there's only one.

On the other hand, the following example shouldn't have "the" unless there is some specific mud that is already understood by the listener:

She smears mud on her face as part of her beauty regimen.

We'd only say "the mud" if, for example, she was buying special mud or using mud from a special creek where she always collected it.

They seem to be enjoying the sound of their feet in mud.

This sounds odd. The implication is that the children have never heard the sound of their feet in mud before.

They seem to be enjoying the sound of their feet in the mud.

This doesn't imply that the listener already knows which mud we're talking about. This is just the normal way of saying this, and if the listener hadn't already been told about some specific mud, they would just assume that the sentence referred to mud, the universal element of nature.

When I bounced this example off of my wife, a professor of French, her reaction was that this use of the definite article for a universal thing was extremely common in French, more so than in English. If we have French or Spanish speakers here, maybe they could comment.

10
  • 1
    On the other hand, google for "the sound of bat on ball" (with quotes, to search for the exact phrase) and you will get hundreds of references to cricket. Google for "the sound of the bat on the ball" and the references are almost all about baseball. British English vs American English, I guess.
    – alephzero
    Aug 6 at 3:06
  • 1
    @alephzero: I don't think googling for a phrase and counting hits has any ability to clarify the logic of how a language is used. Your example is an interesting one, though. It sounds to me like a literary usage -- I don't think anyone would say this in speech. It's an elegant stylistic technique that makes the language sound more poetic. I don't think the logic of that usage overlaps with the logic of the example the OP gives, which has to do with the use of "the" for a universal.
    – user118305
    Aug 6 at 14:16
  • 1
    "Bat on ball" is reminiscent of another description of cricket, also rather lacking in definite articles: "the sound of leather on willow". In both cases, adding definite articles would be very jarring (which bat/ball/leather/willow are we talking about, to warrant a "the"?). It's definitely an unusual form; not sure I'd call it literary as such, but it is rather foosty and old-fashioned. Of course, the leather-on-willow variant is dealing with mass nouns, but I wonder if the application to the count nouns of bat and ball is under influence of the leather-willow version. Aug 6 at 14:52
  • It might be useful to say that "in the mud", when used in a non-specific sense, refers to "the portion of the planet's dirt covering that is waterlogged", while "in mud" could also refer to waterlogged dirt which is not attached to the planet's surface but is instead in a pail, bath, or other enclosure.
    – supercat
    Aug 6 at 15:23
  • 4
    @Ben - You've chosen some rigid phrases on which to base an entire analysis. As you say, waving in wind, is not standard usage. How about, I like the way Eldridge looks standing in water? Even for the rigid phrases, I think your assessment loses some steam when you remove the prepositional phrase. I battled wind on the way in to work today vs I battled the wind on way in to work today. Jeffery's answer is a bit more accurate.
    – EllieK
    Aug 6 at 16:49
6

"In the mud" is what you need in your sentence. "In mud" is possible for general statements as in

... playing in mud makes you happier! Playing in mud can make you healthier too. (Source)

or generic descriptions of certain actions as in

DRIVING IN MUD (also referred to as mud driving)

or

How to free a car stuck in mud

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.