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I would like to know if there is any rule of thumb that helps a nonnative English speaker to decide on when to use "the" and when not?

I am aware of many cases. But sometimes I am not sure, for example: "If you have enjoyed the scientific papers, then you are ..." or "If you have enjoyed scientific papers, then you are ..."? Which one is more idiomatic? In both sentences I intend to refer to all scientific papers available. Wait, by the way, should I say "all the scientific papers available" or simply "all scientific papers available"?

  • Both sound correct to me. But I'm not answering; cuz I'm not a native. It's just that, in some cases they both can be correct (with or without "the"), why do you think one of them must be wrong? – M.A.R. Jan 10 '15 at 16:02
  • Good point; thank you! Actually I do not think one of them must be wrong, I think one of them is more idiomatic than the other :) It is fine if it turns out that both are equally acceptable. – Megadeth Jan 10 '15 at 16:07
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The best rule of thumb I know is that you use the when you're talking about a specific entity and you expect your hearers/readers to know which one you're talking about, because

  • you've already identified which one you're talking about ...

    There's a problem here. The problem is that ...

  • you're about to identify which one you're talking about in the current or next phrase ...

    The problem I want to address today is ...
    The Irish problem ...

  • there's only one you're likely to be talking about ...

    The President said today that ...

EXCEPT: You do not use the with a proper name (unless The is part of the name: The Prelude, by Wordsworth) or with name-like designations such as 'page 1', '1920'.

The conventions get tricky here—for instance, you do say the Mississippi River and the first page and the 1920s —and there are a few other places where the is called for. But I think you'll find this rule covers most cases.

In your example, for instance, it appears that you are not talking about a specific group of scientific papers but of scientific-papers-in-general, so you should not use the:

If you enjoy scientific papers you will want to get hold of the next edition of our journal.

But if you are narrowing the context to a specific group, you do use the:

If you enjoyed the papers you heard today you will want to get hold of the next edition of our journal.

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Obviously Chinese uses a definite article rarely and if then it uses the demonstratives. And I doubt that there is a rule of thumb for speakers of languages whose use of articles is different from the use of articles in most European languages. And if you are given a rule of thumb it won't help you much.

It seems even teachers in China have difficulties with teaching the use of the English articles. I think the problem can't be solved with rules. Instead examples of the use of articles should be studied from time to time and discussed, and that over a longer period of time, let's say one or two school years, till learners get a feeling for the use of English articles

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