3

It's a shame but I hadn't noticed we can use relative clauses without "the" until saw the comments of my answer to this question

It suggests there is difference between:

The boys who are 16 years old

and

Boys who are 16 years old

The first sentence is not true about any boy who is 16 while the second is. What is the rule? For example, I think I can't use a singular noun here to say

Boy who is 16 years old....

However I can say,

A boy who is 16 years old...

In general, can I conclude "the" before nouns in relative clauses is just a coincident and the noun can be in any form (general or specific)? And when we use "the" we are always specific and "the things which ..." never means "any thing which ..."?

2

The difference here is all about the indefinite vs. the definite articles.

The definite article is most commonly used in combination with a noun or phrase that has already been mentioned or is known by both hearer and speaker through context.

So, about these sentences:

  • The boys who are 16 years old.
  • Boys who are 16 years old.

In the first sentence, a specific group of boys are implied. For example, if you were talking about a party and then mention the boys who are 16 years old, you mean all boys who were at that party and are 16 years old. In the second sentence you're talking about boys in general.

There is a reason why this sentence is not correct:

Boy who is 16 years old.

In the plural, it works without an article. This is because actually you do use an article! We call it the zero article. It is the plural form of the indefinite article. In each of the following sentences we have an article, the second one is just the zero article that you do not actually see, because it is not written:

  • A boy
  • Boys

Note that there are more uses for the definite article than the one I just gave you, such as indicating unique nouns (the sun, the King, etc.), time periods (during the night, in the sixties).

Also, it may not always be clear when to use the definite or indefinite article. Have a look at this: Boys who are 16 years old. vs The boys who I saw yesterday. The first sentence is a more 'general' sentence, it is much less restrictive than the second where the hearer can understand which boys are meant. You will have to ask yourself how restrictive the postmodifier is. Does it allow the hearer to specifically identify who the speaker is talking about? If not, you should use the indefinite article such as with boys who are 16 years old. Though boys is being restricted by the postmodifier, it still expresses a rather 'general' group of people. Oppose this to the boys who I saw yesterday and you can tell there is a difference. This group of boys is much more specified and allows the hearer to form a specific interpretation of the people being talked about.

You can read more about the indefinite vs definite articles here: Indefinite and Definite Articles

  • Thank you, then you admit that a noun with "the" usually is not general even I say "the countries which are hot ...." and I should say "countries which are hot ...." or maybe in the first case we mean "the countries on the earth"?! – Ahmad Jul 27 '15 at 18:55
  • No, in that case you can use the because you specify the word countries through the postmodifier which are hot. If you specify the noun, you can or perhaps even should use the definite article. Have a look at this example: The girl I saw yesterday was hot. vs. A girl I saw yesterday was hot. The first sentence is much more idiomatic. – Sander Jul 27 '15 at 18:58
  • My question is actually the same, I didn't get if "the" is just idiomatic or there are rules behind it. you already said I can say "Boys who ..." while there we also had postmodifier "who", or maybe you say there is difference between "which" and "who"? – Ahmad Jul 27 '15 at 19:05
  • I understand your confusion and see the flaw in my logic. This is all about restriction. In my sentence, the postmodifier I saw yesterday restricts the noun girl in order to make it clear to the hearer which girl I am talking about. It may not always be clear when to use the definite or indefinite article, but have a look at this: Boys who are 16 years old. vs The boys who I saw yesterday. The first sentence is a more 'general' sentence, it is much less restrictive than the second where the hearer can understand which boys are meant. – Sander Jul 27 '15 at 19:11
  • Thanks, if you note in my original question I asked if "the" in relative clauses is just a coincident and the noun and the relative clause are independent? But now you say sometimes (as in your second example) they are dependent and it can depend on the semantic of relative clause. I suggest you please modify your answer to reflect this important point! – Ahmad Jul 27 '15 at 19:21

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