9

Example with a context (news article: Russian police arrest three after dramatic Moscow shootout):

In their last crime, the alleged robbers had grabbed more than 8 million rubles ($146,000) in an attack on a cash courier in May, police said.

What's wrong with saying the police said? What's the nuance? Check that article. Almost every time they use the word police, there's no article in front of it.

4

There is nothing wrong with saying "the police." Here is just two articles from the New York Times, a newspaper that seems to prefer "the police":

Bikers Jailed After Waco Shootout Deride High Bonds and Slow Justice

WACO, Tex. — Matthew A. Clendennen, one of the nearly 180 bikers who were jailed after the deadly shootout here last month among rival biker gangs and the police, said he had one weapon on him during the melee — a pocketknife with a two-inch blade that was a Christmas gift from his parents that he uses as a screwdriver and box cutter at work.

...

They say the police used a “fill- in-the-blank” criminal complaint to charge all 177 suspects, that they arrested several unarmed men and women who were “recreational motorcyclists”

New York Police Detective Shoots Gunman Who Wounded Man

A New York police detective in plainclothes shot a 26-year-old man who had shot another man in East Harlem at about 8 p.m. on Tuesday, the authorities said.

The police said the unidentified gunman wounded a 21-year-old man on First Avenue near 101st Street. Two detectives driving in the area after a court appearance heard the shots and got out of their car, the police said.

Officials said the gunman was chasing the wounded man on First Avenue when he encountered the detectives. The police said the detectives identified themselves and ordered the man to drop his weapon, but he pointed it at them instead, prompting one detective to fire two shots.

Notice also "the authorities." The article also has "officials." So the NYT's use of the definite article with such terms is varied. If you check other articles in other newspapers or news sources you will routinely see "authorities" and "officials" along with "police" as having said something. (The) police is considered plural, so it fits right in there with the two plural words. In fact, sometimes (the) "authorities" are (the) "police."

There is little difference in meaning in this context whether one makes a definite reference (using the) or an indefinite reference (not using the). As far as journalism goes, it is a stylistic choice.

The article Police or the police? that Collin links to is pretty good. But it doesn't really say anything surprising.

Writers often use the zero-article with plural nouns when they want to make an indefinite reference. This indefinite reference can include being indefinite as to the number of, say, units involved, whether police or bullets or ants.

Bullets were flying everywhere.

is indefinite. We don't know how many and the author doesn't really care to tells us.

Ants were crawling all over the place.

Same thing.

Police were running everywhere. Police were crawling all over the place.

However, if "the" is used, it can refer to "the police department."

Quick! Call the police!

refers to calling the police department, or the police force. This is the same as when we say

Quick! Call the fire department!

But sometimes it is pretty hard to distinguish. If you are at the scene of a crime or accident and two police officers pull up in a police car, and you say the police are here, it's hard to believe that you are not referring to the two officers at the scene--at least as representating "the police department." Which is fine. We say the same when the firetruck pulls up with 5 firefighters: the fire department is here.

Other newspapers seem to be going away from using even the standard "call the police":

Manhunt focuses on prison area; Philly tip discredited (USA Today)

Meanwhile, Philadelphia police told USA TODAY that two men picked up by a taxi driver and taken to a train station before dawn Thursday were not the fugitives.

Police said the driver called police early Thursday to say he picked up two men who matched the duo's description before dawn Thursday. He said he took them to a train station and then took another fare to the airport before calling police with his concerns.

Police then sought surveillance footage at 30th Street Station and anywhere else that might be helpful. Officer Leeloni Palmiero said a review of footage revealed that the men were not Matt and Sweat.

I'm just highlighting the phrase call police because USA Today seems to prefer this over the normal, everyday phrase call the police. For many, this use of police without the the will seem strange (see Ngram below). And that is not all: analysis of Police or the police? falls apart. Because we don't call an "indeterminate number of police officers" when we "call (the) police," we call "the police department." And I won't be yelling "call police" any time soon. (And hopefully not "call the police" either.)

The conclusion, therefore, is that this is more of a style issue than a purely grammatical issue.

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  • I think this ngram is more representative. It shows "police said" vs "the police said" showing that "police said" started becoming dominant after 1944. The top line is the total of "police said" and "the police said". – CJ Dennis Jun 12 '15 at 9:27
  • Your first quote does not say "the police said". "Matthew A. Clendennen, one of the nearly 180 bikers who were jailed after the deadly shootout here last month among rival biker gangs and the police, said". It says "Matthew A. Clendennen, <description of the guy>, said ...". It looks like it says "the police says" because those are the last words before the second comma. Other than that, great answer. – martijnve Jun 12 '15 at 11:20
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    @martijnve thanks for that. Yes I'm aware the first NYT article does not say the police said. But it does regularly use the police and the OP referred to usages of police throughout the article he/she references, not just in the one phrase. – user6951 Jun 12 '15 at 14:35
  • @CJDennis The Ngram I use is meant to be representative of what it is representative of: call (the) police. – user6951 Jun 12 '15 at 14:37
  • The OP didn't ask about call (the) police but specifically (the) police said so how is it relevant? – CJ Dennis Jun 12 '15 at 15:06
6

This source actually has a direct answer to your question. There is a subtle difference in meaning between the two usages:

The police

Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Longman, 1985, Section 5.29), would probably classify this use of the + police along with singular items like the Prime Minister, and plural examples like the airlines and the masses, as being part of the "larger situation (general knowledge)" in which members of the speech community know the identity of the noun being talked about. That is, if someone refers to the police or the government, no one needs to ask "Which police?" or "Which government?" because the signals shared knowledge.

Police

In other cases, however, the plural form "police" refers to an unspecified number of (flesh-and-blood) members of the police force

Therefore, in that article, the journalist was likely referring to members of the police force, as opposed to the general institution.

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  • 3
    Really? I feel like it's the other way around for me. If they say "the police said", I would imagine they're talking directly about the police officers who were involved in the situation (or perhaps their supervisors). But if they say "police said", I think of their organization as a whole, and not of the individuals involved. – user541686 Jun 12 '15 at 7:57
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    "Police" doesn't change for the plural, like "sheep". So, saying "police said" is like saying "teachers said" - it refers to a number of police, rather than the police, which refers to the organisation. What makes it confusing is the omitted words - in the first, it's "police officers said", while the second is "the police force said". – anaximander Jun 12 '15 at 8:54
  • What's even more confusing is that the journalist probably was reporting a statement made by a single officer. The statement was made on behalf of the police force as a whole, and therefore is endorsed but not literally uttered by many people. Hence "police said". – Steve Jessop Jun 12 '15 at 10:19
2

The police can either be all police or some specific, previously mentioned police. Police refers to some non-specific police.

The police said robbers stole 8 million rubles. (The police force or police department)

Police said robbers stole 8 million rubles. (An unnamed police spokesperson)

Officers Jones and Smith were taking questions at the press conference. The police said robbers stole 8 million rubles. (Officers Jones and Smith)

In your example a specific person made the statement but either their identity was not known to the author or they deemed it not important to the story to name them.

Another example is:

Police are cracking down on speeding motorists.

Here it is not the whole police force or named individuals but a portion of the force whose names are unimportant in that, in theory, all police are equal.

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0

Also, journalistic writing likes to drop unnecessary words. This is especially true for headlines, but the abbreviated style is used throughout articles, too.

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School books should have a first general remark about the use of the definite article. English has a tendency to drop the definite article where it is possible. It is no use clinging to three or four mechanical school rules about the use of the definite article. The Longman English grammar has seven pages about the article and I strongly doubt that they can cover any case where English can drop the definite article. And I doubt that that is possible.

Ask yourself whether "police said" is less understandable than "the police said". There is no grammar rule nor a new nuance. "police said" is simply shorter, that's all.

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