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From a New Yorker article:

To be sure, there are mental disorders in which we know enough of the vectors to say that people who have them should not occupy certain positions. A person prone to delusions should probably not fly an airplane, and a pedophile should not teach children. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. From all we know so far about Lubitz, he was not one of those severe cases but rather someone who was among the millions of people who once contemplated suicide and was being treated for a mood disorder.

Could we drop the before "exceptions":

But these are exceptions rather than the rule.

It seemed to me that the use of the here indicates that the author believes the two mentioned exceptions to be the only exceptions. In line with this reasoning, if we drop the, it would mean that there might be further exceptions, beyond the two mentioned. There must be something wrong with this reasoning, since the author is a native speaker and he must've used the article properly.

P.S. What I mean is that we don't use the here:

(At a market stall) "I want to buy something from you, and you have a nice choice of fruit here. Just look at these beauties! But these are apples rather than oranges, and I want oranges." (we don't say "but these are the apples)

  • The use of "the" acknowledges that every rule has its exceptions. It does not limit the set to the two exceptions offered, which are presented as exempla. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 25 '15 at 9:49
  • @TRomano - I fully agree, but I find it hard to explain "logically" why in this case we use the when presenting something as an example from a larger set. I've expanded by question a bit. – CowperKettle Jul 25 '15 at 10:35
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    Here, it is not that we are presenting examples from a set, but an acknowledgment of the very existence of the set. Every rule has its exceptions. Like "these are the pros, and those are the cons". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 25 '15 at 10:39
  • And we could add items to the pros column, or to the cons column, as they occur to us. There is no implication that the set is exhaustive when we say "these are the pros". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 25 '15 at 10:43
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    Yes. It's completely fine. In fact... "the exceptions" makes it sound (to me) like "the only exceptions"... which clearly isn't the case. Omitting "the" makes it sound more open, implying that those two are two of many rather than a finite list of only two items. I posted this before I read the deleted answer, so I came to this conclusion independent of it. – Catija Jul 31 '15 at 6:31
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Grammatically, you could drop the and write But these are exceptions rather than the rule.

I think the use of the here is trying to maintain a parallel with the familiar set phrase the exception that proves the rule. This phrase is almost invariably worded with the exception, so omitting the in your sentence makes it sound just a little bit odd.

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+100

I believe that the definite articles here echoes an underlying idiom, which is being applied to this case, adapted for the plural "exceptions." We use the idiom the exception rather than the rule to sum up a situation with the meaning this is usually not the case and its elements are always definite:

You may be lucky and have a very distinct pulse, which is easy to locate and count accurately, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Similarly, we have the idiom What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Here both elements are also always definite. Let's assume a couple is giving their household staff Christmas bonuses and the wife suggests that the gardener get a lower bonus than the personal assistant. The man could wittily reply with What's good for the assistant is good for the gardner. By using the definite articles, the listener immediately relates his utterance to the goose and gander idiom as an obvious referent. If the indefinite articles were used, we would lose that referent and it would just be an independent, casual statement.

Similarly in this example, the definite articles are used to related the expression to the idiom to be the exception rather than the rule. IMHO.

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Grammatically speaking, the definite article is not necessary there. Probably no one would ever notice. As Catija points out in a comment, it may even be more correct without it. But it is still better to use the article there, for largely non-grammatical reasons.

One of those reasons, as CocoPop pointed out, is to echo the construction of the very common English idiom "the exception rather than the rule". It is used any time a scenario needs to be explained, but it also needs to be emphasized that the scenario described is not the most likely one. Echoing that very common idiom seems a little more natural, I think.

The other more general reason is a little more complicated, but it's a good example of something native writers internalize so much they don't even realize it.

But these are exceptions rather than the rule.

That's a perfectly valid sentence, and no one would think it was wrong. But:

But these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

has two great things going for it: One, it has parallel construction. By using the same construction for both "the exceptions" and "the rule" we emphasize that these two nouns are being compared, because they are getting equal treatment in the sentence. Two, it scans better. "Scans" is a term used mostly by actors and poets, and it describes the rhythm of a sentence, which in turn gives an idea of how easy it is to say and how good it sounds.

In this case:

But these are exceptions rather than the rule.

That sentence has an interrupted rhythm. It's not bad, but it's not good, either.

But these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

The natural stress falls on every other syllable. This is a rhythm called iambic, and many of the most famous English language speeches in history follow this rhythm. It is famously associated with Shakespeare, and it subconsciously suggests authority and simplicity. If you try to force this rhythm in your writing, it will probably seem very awkward to a reader, but if you have two choices, and one is iambic, go with the iambic one.

Don't worry too much if you can't find the rhythm. Most English speakers probably couldn't, but it is something that truly great writers keep in mind.

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No, dropping the article makes little sense here. And this based on grammar, not on the collocation the exception rather than the rule. And note it is a collocation and not an idiom. The author uses the exceptions because he has a definite subset of mental illnesses in mind.

The construction of the passage in question is

Statement 1

To be sure, there are mental disorders in which we know enough of the vectors to say that people who have them should not occupy certain positions.

Give two examples of people that fall into the category of Statement 1

A person prone to delusions should probably not fly an airplane, and a pedophile should not teach children.

Statement 2

But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. From all we know so far about Lubitz, he was not one of those severe cases...

Note that the 'mental disorders' of Statement 1 equates with 'severe cases' of Statement 2.

The sentence with the two examples is parenthetical. It is there to provide examples of two types of people that suffer from the type of 'mental disorders' mentioned in Statement 1. The author could have listed more than two, but he chose not to. There is no reason to think that the two examples exhaust the subset defined by 'there are mental disorders'. Earlier in the article the author mentions schizophrenia as a 'severe psychotic disorder'. With actual parentheses in use, you would have:

To be sure, there are mental disorders in which we know enough of the vectors to say that people who have them should not occupy certain positions. (A person prone to delusions should probably not fly an airplane, and a pedophile should not teach children.) But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. From all we know so far about Lubitz, he was not one of those severe cases...

Here it is clear that these are the exceptions ultimately goes back to the larger subset mentioned in Statement 1. In fact we can eliminate the sentence with the examples with no real loss in meaning or distortion in syntax:

To be sure, there are mental disorders in which we know enough of the vectors to say that people who have them should not occupy certain positions. A person prone to delusions should probably not fly an airplane, and a pedophile should not teach children. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. From all we know so far about Lubitz, he was not one of those severe cases...

As far as the collocation:

The collocation (see definition 3 of 'rule' (noun) in the ODO) is not sacrosanct. Elsewhere it has been correctly employed without the when context warrants it (see here, for example). Also, it is commonly changed to 'an exception rather than the rule' when context warrants.

Thus to say there is something magic about the collocation so that it must be employed with the is incorrect. Even if sounds groovy (iambic) and doing so preserves the parallelism of the exception(s) with the rule. Now, all these things are true, but it is also true that the author uses the collocation as he does because he is thinking of a definite group of mental illnesses.

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The is used to signal that you mean one particular previously mentioned or observed instance of a singular or collective noun. It can convey a sense of "only" if there is only a single instance of that noun in the world, i.e. the earth, the sky, etc. Without using the the underlying meaning is any X or X in general.

You do not use an article before plural nouns in English unless you mean a specific set of X or multiple groups of X previously mentioned or observed. For singular nouns you'd use the indefinite article, of course.

Now:

But these are exceptions

But these are the exceptions

Here's the big question, does the above distinction matter for this sentence?

It doesn't really. You can omit the because the preceding examples you give are abstract and obvious, so it can be considered you aren't talking about specific exceptions in a sense

Now, if your examples were abstract and not obvious - perhaps if the subject was something far more scientific technical and not known to general laypeople - using the could lead the reader into believing these might be the only two possible examples. A body of knowledge can change what is considered to be "only a single instance of that noun in the world" (e.g. "the weak nuclear force," "the strong nuclear force," etc.)

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Obviously, if we use the article "the" we are limiting the possible number of exceptions to those mentioned. If we wouldn't use it we would be leaving open the possibility of the existence of other exceptions, not mentioned here.

So to all intents and purposes it seems to me we can assume the writer was mentioning all the exceptions he knows (or knew).

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