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This is an excerpt from a BBC article on the U.S. midterms:

She is in charge of the mechanics of voting, making sure polling stations operate smoothly, ballots are collected safely and counted accurately.

Why are there no definite articles before "polling stations" and "ballots"? Would it be natural to put them there?

When I am talking about a restaurant I can say "the waiters" because they are an expected part of any restaurant.(they are introduced by the word "restaurant") When I am talking about a house I can say "the walls" because every house is expected to have them. When I am talking about a library I can say "the books", When I am talking about a plane I can say "the crew" etc.

It's clear from the context that the speaker is talking about voting and the concept of voting obviously includes ballots and polling stations. Why didn't they use "the"?

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    The waiters in a particular restaurant, waiters in general. The journalist could have said 'the polling stations [in the USA]', but chose to refer to 'polling stations [in general]' Dec 24, 2022 at 9:19
  • if she'd said "THE polling stations" would it have been necesarry to add "in the USA" or it would've been fine just to imply it? Dec 24, 2022 at 15:07
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    No, I put some words in square brackets to indicate that they expressed an implied meaning. Dec 24, 2022 at 16:01
  • @KateBunting Thank you! Dec 24, 2022 at 17:09
  • General statements do not require the "the".
    – Lambie
    Dec 24, 2022 at 20:21

3 Answers 3

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When we use the definite article, it refers to something specific. If someone said, without context, "I'm responsible for the polling stations", you would have to ask "which polling stations?".

Clearly, this person is responsible for all polling stations. Also, her job role is ongoing. She is not only responsible for the polling stations that will be used today, but also for any in the future. Consider the example of a firefighter - they would not say "I'm responsible for putting out the fires", because again, you'd have to ask "which fires?" Hopefully there will be no fires! They are responsible for "putting out fires" - any potential fires that may occur.

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  • What if I change the context into Past: "She was in charge of voting in the 2018 elections, making sure (the?) polling stations (the ones that were used in 2018 elections) operate smoothly" Will it make the definite article possible or not? The words in brackets are not part of the sentence, just my reasoning for the use of "the" Dec 24, 2022 at 15:02
  • @Mr.PastProgressive That context added, either work.
    – Astralbee
    Dec 24, 2022 at 22:24
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You would say: "Polling stations operate smoothly." Therefore: "I make sure that polling stations operate smoothly."

If I say "polling stations" then I mean those things in general, all of them, anywhere. If I say "THE polling stations" then I am probably speaking about a subset: perhaps only the ones in my area, or London, etc. "The" is a way to specialize; it's similar to saying "THOSE ones".

Example: "Polling stations are normally safe. But THE polling stations around here cannot be trusted!"

"The" is grammatically referred to as the definite article (although in modern grammar we would probably call it a determiner). If I say "cake tastes good" then I mean cake in general, all cake. If I say "THE cake tastes good" [definite article] then I mean there's a specific cake (probably one that we know about, maybe on the table) and that one tastes good. And if I say "A cake tastes good" [indefinite article] then I am saying there is some cake, somewhere, that tastes good, but maybe we never saw it.

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  • What if I say "in this restaurant I am in charge of the staff, making sure THE waiters serve THE tables well and THE cooks prepare food on time"? I think "the" would be the preferable choice here and "zero article" can't be used here at all, And the reasoning for that is that I'm talking about the tables/waiters and cooks from that particular restaurant. (the ones that work/are in this restaurant) Is that logic correct?| If yes, Why can't this logic be applied to the 2022 midterm elections? the ballots and the stations that were/are used in these particualr elections? Dec 24, 2022 at 15:15
  • Yes, you're talking about THE waiters and THE tables because it's a subset of all the world's waiters and tables: you are only referring to the specific ones who are in your restaurant. That's different from (say) "Waiters expect tips", or "Tables usually have four legs", where I am referring to every single instance of the concept.
    – equin0x80
    Dec 24, 2022 at 15:19
  • but aren't the ballots used in the 2022 midterm US elections also a subset of all the ballots in the world? Dec 24, 2022 at 16:08
  • I meant no offense, friend. Put yourself in my shoes: I am doing a research and I have to identify the most precise rules governing the use of articles. If a rule or an explanation are to be considered reliable and valid it must work in around 80% of the cases. My follow-up question about waiters was just an attempt to test the your explanation and find out if it fits other cases, not just the one we're discussing (since a valid explanation always fits most of the cases by definition) . I do the same thing to my own hypotheses Dec 24, 2022 at 16:21
  • I've read that book where they discuss the concept of "subset", however, no one explains what can and can't be considered a subset and no one's drawn more or less fine line of disctinction. Waiters in my restaurant are a subset of all waiters, candidates in 2020 presidential elections are aswell, but ballots aren't. I can say "I came to my local library, a lot of people were using _computers" Aren't computers in my library supposed to be a subset of all computers in the world? Why is there no definite article then? "in my college teachers care about students" - subsets aswell, but 0 article Dec 24, 2022 at 16:57
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Why are there no definite articles before "polling stations" and "ballots"? Would it be natural to put them there?

It is a natural and correct use.

A polling station is the singular whose plural is polling stations

The polling station is the singular whose plural is the polling stations

A polling station = one example of [the thing that we call] "polling station"

polling stations = examples of [the things that we call] "polling stations"

The same is true of "a ballot/ballots

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