I think I am still struggle with the article "the".

Is it "in text format" or "in the text format"?

My sentence:

For example, to teach the distinction between short and long vowels like /ԑ/ and /iː/ (as set and seat) or /a/ and /a:/ (as got and dart), an appropriate list in text format can be prepared.

I guess my usage is correct, but for assurance I searched it in Google

  • "in text format" : 490,000
  • "in the text format" : 949,000 !which is much more

Then I thought maybe I missed something about "the"

  • An interesting question! I've found one discussion online where the word format is called weakly countable and this alleged feature is provided as an explanation of the acceptability of the omission of the Jul 10, 2015 at 11:16
  • It's dangerous to trust Google in such cases because the number of hits doesn't indicate correctness, just frequency of hits. It's - as so often - a matter of context. I can off the cuff think of a number of sentences that require the article, like "in the text format used by..."
    – Stephie
    Jul 10, 2015 at 11:16
  • You can try Google Ngram Viewer - you will discover that "in text format" is more widespread (at least in books) Jul 10, 2015 at 11:21
  • Also note that the number of results returned by Google is only an "estimate". For example, when I searched for the string "in the text format" on Google Books, Google returned "About 947,000 results (0.22 seconds)". However, when I reached page 28, it said "Page 28 of 274 results (0.37 seconds)". That's how unreliable the estimated number of results is. Jul 10, 2015 at 11:48
  • @CopperKettle I haven't noticed that for countable words I should always use an article!, In general, I think when I use "the" I should have a specific thing in mind?!
    – Ahmad
    Jul 10, 2015 at 12:03

1 Answer 1


Definite Article

In general, we use 'the', which is known as the definite article, when we are referring to one specific thing. 'Definite' means 'determined or resolved' or 'free from any doubt'. When we use the definite article, there should be no doubt about what we're referring to.

But, like anything else in English, it's never that straightforward. Here are some more elaborate rules from the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

As an example of how nuanced the usage of 'the' can be, look at this English Language Stack Exchange question and answer.

Learning when to use an article, and which one, is one of the most difficult parts of learning the English language. Here's a paper I ran across detailing these difficulties for ELLs.

Your Example

You've correctly chosen not to include an article in your example sentence.

This is good, because this was a tricky decision. 'Format' is in a class of words known as 'weakly countable' that doesn't get talked about much. These words are tricky, because sometimes they take an article, and sometimes they don't. The PDF article I linked gives this example:

e.g., She likes beer. (But one can still say ‘I would like to have two beers’)

When it comes to 'format', the main thing is whether you're distinguishing between several different formats. In your sentence, you're really describing the list, rather than talking about the format. Another issue is that there actually is no specific 'text format'. There's ASCII, Unicode, and so on. So I would normally use 'a' with 'text format', not 'the'. Let's use 'ASCII' for an example with 'the':

The ASCII format results in very small file sizes, unlike the Word document format.

I made a file in ASCII format.

Avoiding the Issue

You can often rephrase a sentence to avoid this issue:

For example, to teach the distinction between short and long vowels like /ԑ/ and /iː/ (as set and seat) or /a/ and /a:/ (as got and dart), an appropriate text-formatted list can be prepared.

  • Thank you, I just didn't get why "format" could be countable, certainly we have several format (Pdf format, Text format...). then you mean when we have several things of something it makes it countable? Then for many things this rule applies. For example we could have Indian rice and Japanese rice... Then I can say please select a rice and one replies I like the Japanese rice
    – Ahmad
    Jul 10, 2015 at 19:07
  • @Ahmad Yes, that rice example is perfect. If I'm talking about my preferences in general, I might say "I like Japanese rice". But, if I have two bowls of rice in front of me, one Japanese and one Indian, then I would say "I would like the Japanese rice".
    – DCShannon
    Jul 10, 2015 at 20:27

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