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Please help! I'm totally confused whether to use or omit the definite article in front of plural or uncountable nouns. I'm writing a scientific article. Here is an excerpt (N.B. ROS = reactive oxygen species, plural).

(The?) studies investigating (the?) ROS production in (the?) primary T cells are limited, especially (the?) studies in (the?) primary human T cells. Moreover, (the?) majority of those studies employed (the?) highly artificial types of (the?) stimulation, such as (the?) stimulations with (the?) PMA and (the?) ionomycin or (the?) CD3 and (the?) CD28 antibodies added in (the?) solution, leading to (the?) T-cell hyperactivation or (the?) unresponsiveness, respectively. There were also no precautions taken to discriminate (the?) T cell-derived ROS from that emanating from (the?) phagocytic cells, which are always present in (the?) preparations of (the?) primary T cells and could be easily activated by (the?) same stimulatory agents.

All I know is that for plural countable or uncountable nouns the rule is:

If a noun (or noun phrase?) refers to all of the group/entity – no article is required (word typical can be inserted)

If a noun (or noun phrase?) refers to a subset of the group/entity – the should be used (those/that can be inserted instead)

The major problem for me is to understand whether it is a noun or a noun phrase that must refer to a subset of a group, and whether the rest of the noun phrase can make noun to refer to a subset. For example,

The studies investigating the ROS production in primary T cells are limited, especially the studies in primary human T cells.

Here, the studies refer to a subset of studies devoted to investigating the ROS production in primary T cells. The ROS production refers to a subset of ROS production that occurs in primary T cells. On the other hand, primary T cells in this context are generic, so no article is required. Is my logic correct?

Or can it be that studies investigating ROS production in primary T cells, studies in primary human T cells and ROS production in primary T cells are also generic concepts, and hence do not require articles?

Studies investigating ROS production in primary T cells are limited, especially studies in primary human T cells.

Please help!

  • You've got some excellent example sentences there where the articles are by and large optional. They neither need to be included nor need to be omitted. – J.R. Aug 20 '15 at 10:44
  • @J.R. Thank you! Can you please elaborate on it? How to define whether an article defines the noun or the noun phrase? – Aleksey Aug 20 '15 at 11:02
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Preamble: use the article (or not) to tell the listener how you are thinking of the noun. It is not that the noun requires an article or does not require an article. Your use of the article, or your not using the article, tells the listener whether you have in mind a particular thing or a class of thing.

Studies investigating ROS production in primary T cells are limited, especially studies of primary human T cells. Moreover, the majority of those studies employed highly artificial types of stimulation, such as stimulation with PMA and ionomycin, or with CD3 and CD28 antibodies added to the solution, which lead to T-cell hyperactivation or unresponsiveness, respectively. There were also no precautions taken to discriminate T cell-derived ROS from that emanating from phagocytic cells, which are always present in preparations of primary T cells and could be easily activated by the same stimulatory agents.

Whenever you are referring to a class or category of something qua class or category (a class of study, a class of cells) no determiner is required:

Studies investigating ROS production
primary human T cells.
highly artificial types of stimulation
stimulation with PMA and ionomycin
PMA
ionomycin

You're not talking about particular actual molecules of ionomycin but of the drug in general terms.

Wheels are round.
The wheel was dented.
Gold is a metal.
The gold lay in a heap in the dragon's lair.

A specific subgroup, on the other hand, requires a determiner:

"the majority".

She wants to sit with the cool kids in the cafeteria.

Cool kids around the world know they're cool.

If you want to distinguish one class from another:

We have been speaking of studies of cats and studies of dogs. The studies of cats were conducted by graduate students and the studies of dogs were conducted by Nobel laureates.

  • Thank you for the excellent answer! However, could you please explain the use of articles in the following sentence from a Nature Reviews article? The extreme defects in hair development led the authors to examine whether β-catenin, which is required for the formation and homeostasis of hair follicles as part of the WNT pathway, is a downstream mediator of ROS in this context. Isn't formation and homeostasis of hair follicles a general statement, like stimulation with PMA and ionomycin? – Aleksey Aug 20 '15 at 16:50
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    One could conceive of the formation and homeostasis as a particular process relating to hair follicles, one of several processes related to follicles; or one could conceive of "formation and homeostasis of hair follicles" as a process in the abstract. Concepts are flexible in that way. There are several pathways; one of them is known as the WNT pathway. I have to say, I don't know what they mean by "as part of" the WNT pathway, since pathways don't have "parts" -- unless by pathway they mean process, or if by "part" they mean "step". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 20 '15 at 17:07
  • Yes, that was exactly my point. It seems, in line also with what J.R. said, these linguistic constructs can be treated as a whole without the or split into parts and prefaced with the. So, if it is up to the writer to decide, I prefer to omit all thes. – Aleksey Aug 20 '15 at 17:16
  • No, the pathway part is clear. I highlighted that the mistakenly, sorry. Pathway is singular, and the WNT pathway is indeed one of a kind, so no question about that. Biological signaling pathways indeed have parts - signaling molecules of which pathways are composed. Beta-catenin is one of the molecules that compose the WNT pathway. – Aleksey Aug 20 '15 at 17:44
  • I understand that pathway is singular; but "the" is used because there are many pathways in a biological system, each one doing what it does; this is a particular pathway, "the WNT pathway". So there, "the" is not optional. What I found less than clear was the use of the phrase "a part of" with the word "pathway". What are the parts of a pathway? It's a mixed metaphor. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 20 '15 at 17:52
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So, it seems that the use of the definite article with plural or uncountable nouns is not very strictly defined by grammatical rules, and decisions are left to the author.

However, I also came up with the following rule. I'm not saying I'm the first who came up with something like this, but it works for me like a charm.

Try to insert any (kind of) or some (kind of) in front of the noun in question. If at least one of those works, put a for singular countable or no article for plural countable and uncountable nouns. If none work, put the.

It does not work for proper nouns though, but that's another story.

Finally, I gravitated towards this version:

There are few studies investigating ROS production in primary T cells, especially in human primary T cells. Moreover, the majority of those studies employed highly artificial types of stimulation, such as stimulations with PMA and ionomycin, or with CD3 and CD28 antibodies added in solution, which lead to T-cell hyperactivation or unresponsiveness, respectively. There were also no precautions taken to discriminate the T cell-derived ROS from those emanating from phagocytic cells, which are always present in preparations of primary T cells and could be easily activated by the same stimulatory agents.

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