yesterday I went to a restaurant. I talked to _ waiters, I gave compliments to the hostess.

Is it true that this sentence will be equally fine whether I use "_ waiters" or "the waiters"?

I understand why we use "the hostess" - because "hostess" is expected to be in any typical restaurant and she's more often than not expected in singular (i.e. she's "unique within the given context") Similar to "the floor" and "the ceiling" or "the kitchen" in this context. But why is it possible to say just "waiters"? (if it is possible at all?)

When it comes to nouns in plural this approach with "expected items" doesn't always work. I often come across plural nouns that are definitely "expected to be/ implied" in the context but they have zero article:

This prison is notorious and has been in the news several times because The warden treats _ inmates like animals.

In this sentence "THE warden" is obvously a good choice because "warden" is expected to be in any typical prison and he is unique in the context of any given prison i.e. there's usually only 1 warden for 1 prison. But what about "inmates"? They are also expected to be in any typical prison. However, we are not obliged to say "the inmates" for some reason.

Is it true that in these 2 sentences It's perfectly fine to use "waiters" and "inmates" without "the"?

  • I would say that using the implies 'all or most of them', leaving out the article implies 'some of them'. Nov 5, 2022 at 9:13
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    I don't like the "I talked to waiters" version; it isn't exactly wrong, but it suggests that you talked to generic, nonspecific waiters. If you mean you talked to the specific waiters who were at that restaurant, then "the waiters" sounds more natural.
    – stangdon
    Nov 5, 2022 at 13:40
  • @stangdon does it apply to "inmates" in the 2nd example? Nov 5, 2022 at 15:29
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    Again, I would prefer to use the article with inmates, because the warden is really treating his specific inmates like animals, but on the other hand, he would probably also treat any inmates like animals, so the zero-article is not wrong either.
    – stangdon
    Nov 5, 2022 at 15:41

1 Answer 1


We use "the" for something that is already entirely specified.

If there's only one of something, like the warden in a particular prison, it's entirely specified by default. Likewise, if we're referring to all of some set of things, like all the prisoners in a particular prison, then they're also specified, and we use "the".

In the context of the warden and the prisoners, "the" was left out because the warden hadn't mistreated all the prisoners. The lack of "the" means the warden treats inmates in general like animals. It's exactly the same grammar as, "He treats children like dogs." It doesn't mean he treats every child on Earth like a dog, nor even every child he meets, but that in general, he's unkind to children.

Your example of "I talked to waiters" sounds odd. When you refer to waiters in general like that, it sounds like you're thinking of waiters as a type of person that you've decided to talk to, rather than that you happened to talk to some or all of the waiters in that restaurant.

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