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One exercise in my English Grammar book asks to describe the picture, as shown in the following picture:

Exercises. Look at the pictures. Put the verbs in the correct form, past continuous or past simple.

Since "pictures" are plural, I think it would be better to use "these" instead of "the". Is this correct?

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22

Either the or these is fine, though the meaning is subtly different.

"The plural noun" indicates you are talking about a (singular) group of items (plural) that are known to be the subject of conversation.

  • "The people are here." - The people we talked about earlier have arrived, and are just outside the door.
  • "Please water the flowers." - Please give water to the flowers in our garden
  • "I brought the computers." - I brought the computers you asked for earlier

"These plural noun" emphasizes that you are talking about the ones which are located here, in close proximity, or are clearly indicated right now, and not about any others.

  • "These people are here." - The people in front of me right now are the people who are here.
  • "Please water these flowers." - Please give water to the flowers that are in front of me right now (on my desk).
  • "I brought these computers." - I only brought these computers, not those computers. Someone else brought those.

In this specific situation with the pictures in the book, either word works just fine, and there is basically no distinction between the choice other than personal preference and habit of use. As you can see, "the pictures" refers to the relevant pictures, which are also happen to be the closest pictures to the words, and we are excluding any other pictures. Both words work.

That said, "Please look at the pictures" is more common-- mostly out of habit. It's used because we use it, not for any other real reason.

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  • I don't think it's correct to imply that "the" can only be used with a plural noun because it is referring to a (singular) group of items. "The" can be singular or plural, like Ilmari Karonen's answer says. Otherwise, this is a good answer.
    – DLosc
    Dec 10 '21 at 18:15
  • It's correct to say that "the" can be used with plurals, but the plural is treated as a singular group. At least that's how I think of it, and how I was taught in Elementary School in America. I mean, once you have a specific, known, definite set of multiple things, it becomes a single group, if only for the purpose of your sentence. Dec 16 '21 at 7:46
  • Hmm. I can understand taking "the pictures" as a single group with regard to meaning (when you say something about "the pictures," it typically applies to all of the pictures together), but surely with regard to grammar the phrase is still plural, isn't it? (As evidenced by the fact that it requires a plural verb form.) FWIW, I'm also American, although I studied Greek grammar a lot more recently than English grammar.
    – DLosc
    Dec 16 '21 at 17:05
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It sounds like you're thinking of "these" as the plural counterpart of "the". It is not.

  • "These" is the plural of "this".

  • The plural of "the" is "the".*

So all of the following are valid English sentences:

  1. Look at this picture.
  2. Look at the picture.
  3. Look at these pictures.
  4. Look at the pictures.

In your example there are multiple pictures, so options 1 and 2 do not apply, but either 3 or 4 can be used. There is almost no difference in meaning between sentences 3 and 4, but there is a very slight difference in emphasis and connotation:

  • Writing "look at these pictures" suggests that the reader does not necessarily know which pictures to look at, or perhaps hasn't even noticed the pictures yet.

  • Writing "look at the pictures" assumes that the reader has already seen the pictures and already knows exactly which pictures the writer must be referring to.

In the exercise text you've quoted, either "the" or "these" would work. In fact, based on your quote alone, I might personally find "these" slightly more natural here, since the pictures have not been introduced before.

However, I also suspect that all the exercise instructions in your book are written in a style that consistently uses "the" to refer to elements of the exercise (as in "the pictures" and "the verbs"). That makes sense in the context of a book full of exercises, each of which always has some instruction text that refers to things shown below it, as the reader is expected to become familiar with the format and to know where to look for those things. And it saves a bit of space compared to always writing out e.g. "the pictures below" or "the verbs given in parentheses".


*) Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that "the" is an indeclinable article that can be used with both singular and plural nouns. Although, given that corresponding definite articles in many other European languages do decline in number, it does seem reasonable to me to say that articles can indeed have plurals, and that the plural form of the English definite article merely happens to look the same as its singular form.

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There is nothing wrong with using "the" to refer to more than one thing. The only required thing is that the things be definite. Since it clearly means the three pictures provided, it is correct.

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As other answers have said, both "the" and "these" can be used with plurals.

"This", "that", "these", and "those" are normally used when you need to distinguish a particular object or set of objects from some other object(s). So if there were two groups of pictures, and you wanted someone to look at a specific group, you might touch one of them and say "look at these pictures". If you tried to use "the", the listener/reader would be confused as to which group you meant (or they might treat all of them as a single collection).

But when there's only one possible referent, you don't need to distinguish. In this case, you can use "the" to refer to it and there's no confusion.

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Either “The” or “These” is correct. Choosing one over the other is just a matter of writer’s or editor’s choice.

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