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I heard the following sentence in a presentation from a native speaker:

During the tough times, do you drift apart or stick together?

I wonder why the definite article "the" is used before the phrase "tough times". I thought we typically do not use the definite article "the" before general plural nouns because in such situations we would be talking about a general concept.

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    During tough times would be correct too. Presumably this speaker was thinking of 'the tough times' in a person's life as distinct from 'the good times', in the same way we speak of 'the blue ones' in a string of different coloured beads. Mar 1 at 17:59
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    @KateBunting I think that's bang on. Care to make that an answer?
    – gotube
    Mar 2 at 0:54

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As you are probably aware, the definite article is the default usage when pointing out something that is unique in a restricted sphere. For instance, we say: "Her kite got caught in the top of a tree," even though the tree the top belongs to is indefinite.

In the sentence above, the phrase "during tough times" is what we would expect; however, saying "during the tough times" forces the listener to figure what is the restricted sphere of reference to allow use of the definite article. Since this phrase is actually fairly common, the listener immediately thinks of life as being divided into two parts: the tough times and the easy/good times. The speaker is then understood as referring to this tough part of life that all of us expect to face from time to time.

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  • I found the phrase "unique in a restricted sphere" particularly helpful!
    – Jeff
    Mar 2 at 6:19

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