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Let's say I am talking to a friend of mine:

I had a walk in the forest yesterday. (the?) Trees had scratch marks on them. They must have been left by bears.

Note that both the speaker and listener had NOT discussed or mentioned any trees or scratch marks prior to this conversation.

Despite "trees" being quite definite, (i.e. it is rather obvious to the listener that I'm talking about the trees growing in the forest that I went to yesterday) I believe that the zero article is, however, a better choice here with the definite article still being acceptable, though.

Zero article would be mean something like: "some trees I was passing by had marks on them"

while "the" would be closer in meaning to "the whole group of trees I saw in the forest mostly had marks on them"

Are my assumptions correct? If not, please kindly provide your opinions and the reasoning behind it. NB: I would really appreciate some in-depth answers.

2 Answers 2

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Sample: I had a walk in the forest yesterday. (the?) Trees had scratch marks on them. They must have been left by bears.

In English, plural nouns are for general cases.

  • Trees are often green.
  • Teenagers often act crazy.

But here, it is not a general case, it is specific. So, the determiner "the" would be used.

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    This has the right answer, but it took me a few re-reads to understand. Maybe mention the legendary "zero article"? One thing that occurs to me: Shift the story into the present or future tense and the zero article would be even worse: "I'm taking a walk in the forest today. Trees have scratch marks on them." It becomes increasingly less clear that "trees" are limited to "in the forest"; only context helps wrench us back into understanding. (And, once confused, if we follow it up with "They must have been left there by bears," we must take a moment to dispel the image of tree-toting bears.) Dec 8, 2023 at 19:07
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    @Mr.PastProgressive Note, the books and trees there are the objects of verbs; that's the difference. And I think you could use "the" with them if you wanted to, since those are also "the books of the library" and "the trees of the forest." Where you couldn't is "We went to the park. We were riding bikes there." This is just describing your activity and makes no claim that the bikes have a relationship to the park. Dec 8, 2023 at 19:21
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    "I was at the NY library. I was reading books." These are two unconnected statements. "I had a walk in the forest yesterday. Trees had scratch marks on them." These are two unconnected statements. "I was at the NY library. I was reading books there." The books are still general, but you've reconnected the sentences using a location. "I had a walk in the forest yesterday. Trees there had scratch marks on them." Again, general trees but reconnected using a location.
    – YonKuma
    Dec 8, 2023 at 19:42
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    The best rule of thumb is the general statement versus specific thing. Nothing else.
    – Lambie
    Dec 8, 2023 at 19:52
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    @Mr.PastProgressive This sentence is a run on sentence, but otherwise is perfectly acceptable. Both "I like Jim's cafe; the waiters are so professional" and "I like Jim's cafe; waiters there are so professional" have similar meanings and are idiomatic.
    – YonKuma
    Dec 8, 2023 at 20:27
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One of your two assumptions is correct. The trees does mean all the trees you encountered. But the version without the sounds like a non sequitur because, as @Lambie explains, zero-article bare plural nominals express general (if not universal) statements. It would be clearer if your passage used some trees, and better still if it said some of the trees.

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  • Spelling, not enough reputation to correct: non sequitur.
    – phoog
    Dec 9, 2023 at 15:19
  • Oh golly, @phoog, you’re right! Dec 9, 2023 at 15:22

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