14

This is my post from History Stack Exchange. I was reading posts there and one specific issue interested me. That's why I wrote that post.

Should I use the when referring to posts on History SE in general?

This is my post from History Stack Exchange. I was reading the posts there and one specific issue interested me. That's why I wrote that post.

Since I did not refer to particular posts, I used no article, but a native speaker corrected me, adding the.

Would not the use of the indicate "all posts"?


P.S. Do we say

I was in the N.Y. Library. I was reading the books there, and one book interested me.

The N.Y. Library must be quite big. On the other hand, without the the reader might assume that I took some books along with me into the Library and was reading them there.

  • 1
    @Usernew - "the" sometimes serves to indicate "all of (something)". I'm asking just in case. Of course from the context the reader will understand that I haven't read the entire collection of HSE's posts. I'm just wondering why it's felicitous. – CowperKettle Jan 13 '16 at 7:18
  • 3
    Native speakers often correct sentences based on their instinct on how odd the sentence sounds to them. As English comes naturally for them, these corrections are instinctive. Maybe the editor felt that the sentence lacked a certain "the" somewhere. – Varun Nair Jan 13 '16 at 7:20
  • 1
    Highly recommend this article by Barbara Abbott on definite and indefinite (it's a pdf) – Alan Carmack Apr 13 '16 at 3:09
  • 1
    Another highly recommended pdf: Uniqueness, Familiarity, and the Definite Article in English. Betty Birner. University of Pennsylvania. Gregory Ward. Northwestern University. @whitedevil – Alan Carmack Aug 16 '16 at 4:21
  • 1
    In today's English, for sure: the books of the NYPL are very old. For some reason the bare plural books of the NYPL seems odd. Probably because of of the. – Alan Carmack Aug 17 '16 at 22:50
11

Implied reference

If your intended audience doesn't know that History Stack Exchange contains "posts", then you should omit the article. By omitting it, you are implicitly saying "I don't expect you to already know what is available to read on History Stack Exchange. So, I am informing you now: the things on History Stack Exchange that can be read are 'posts'."

If your reader knows that there is nothing to read on History Stack Exchange but posts, you could omit "posts" entirely:

I was reading there and one specific issue interested me.

The way to think of "the" in this context (and most contexts) is that it refers to something that the reader understands that you have already referred to, even if only implicitly. For example:

I went to the kitchen and got the tricycle.

only makes sense if your listener knows that a tricycle was in the kitchen. We don't normally expect that there would be a tricycle in a kitchen.

I went to a new customer's kitchen and fixed the sink.

This makes sense because it's normal and expected that a kitchen would have a sink, even if this is the first time you've heard of the kitchen. The word "kitchen" implicitly brings up the sink, so you can refer to the sink with "the".

At the Turkish restaurant, I got köfte, a kind of spiced meatball dish.

Here, omitting the article suggests that you don't expect your listener to know what köfte is or that it's something you'd likely get at the Turkish restaurant.

At Canter's Deli, you should get the corned-beef sandwich.

Here, "the" is appropriate because bringing up the deli implicitly brings up typical items on the menu. Even if you don't expect your listener to know that Canter's Deli serves corned-beef sandwiches, "the" can still be appropriate because "the" also suggests selecting one thing from among many choices. The sentence means "At Canter's deli, you should choose 'corned-beef sandwich' from among your choices for what to eat—which will be apparent once you're there."

The books at the library

That last point about "the" makes this sentence sound a little silly:

I was in the N.Y. Library. I was reading the books there, and one book interested me.

"Oh, you were reading the books!" As opposed to what, the posters on the wall? The definite article also suggests that you were there to read all the books, which is absurd. Usually when there is grammatical ambiguity, a listener will use common sense to avoid making an absurd interpretation, but in this case, the absurdity is hard to avoid because a listener understands this sentence by analogy with the "…and fixed the sink" and "…get the corned-beef sandwich" sentences. This sentence treats "the books" as a single fixture in the New York Library. That doesn't make sense if you're reading them; it makes sense in a context like this:

The yearly cost to insure the books in the New York Library is over a million dollars.

Notice "the yearly cost". The definite article fits there because insuring books implies a yearly cost.

Bringing your own books

About whether without "the" the reader might assume that you took some books along with you into the library and were reading them there, the answer is no. The ordinary thing to do at a library is read the library's books, not your own. A reader will assume that unless you say otherwise. If you were reading your own books, you'd have to say that explicitly.

The best way to reword your last example is probably just this:

I was reading at the N.Y. Library, and one book interested me.

The metaphor of pointing

If this is sounding like complicated rules to memorize, here is a simple way to understand what's going on. "The" is like pointing to something that your listener already sees, much like "that" as a demonstrative adjective (etymologically, the similarity between the words is no coincidence). For example, if someone holds up a tray containing two cookies and asks "Which would you like?", you could answer "I'll take the big one." Or you could start a conversation with "Look at the bird in that tree"—if there's only one bird and it's easy to see. The word "the" is appropriate even though it's introducing something new, because you're pointing out something that your listener already sees, or you're inviting your listener to look at it. The specific thing you mean is already there, and you're just pointing to it. Only, instead of pointing with your finger, you're pointing with the noun phrase that follows "the".

In the case of implied reference, when you bring up a kitchen, your listener "already sees" the sink, so you refer to the sink with "the". Regarding a tricycle in the kitchen, "the tricycle" would suggest that you assume that your listener expects that the kitchen contains a tricycle. Unless some other context already set that up, your listener is likely to think that you misspoke or that he misheard. Regarding advice about what to order at a restaurant, "the" can introduce an entirely new food item, because your listener will "see" the menu when actually visiting the restaurant.

Often more than one choice is perfectly good. The choice between "reading posts" and "reading the posts" is largely a matter of taste. But you should understand that these choices convey information about what you are assuming your listener sees, imagines, or expects.

  • 1
    This is one of the best missives on the definite article I've encountered on ELL. – J.R. Jan 13 '16 at 15:38
  • 3
    It sounds like normal English to me, but it sounds like a relatively unusual situation. – J.R. Jan 13 '16 at 16:18
  • 2
    @Ben,it accords with the 'rule' I am stipulating: a speaker can use the definite article when he assumes that his listener can identify which referent he means. It depends on what the speaker assumes about his listener, not what the listener already knows. (continued) – GoDucks Jan 13 '16 at 16:23
  • 4
    @BenK - I wouldn't expect a tricycle in a kitchen. That said, if you told me, "I went to the kitchen and got the tricycle," then I would assume there had been a tricycle for some reason, not that you had made some kind of grammatical mistake. – J.R. Jan 13 '16 at 18:40
  • 2
    Ben I have no idea what you're ALLCAPPING ABOUT. Are you quoting someone? The example with the mink coat was just to counter the assertion of your first sentence. I also did that with the very normal request for someone to go fetch the red & white socks; in both cases my interlocutor did not know beforehand the item was there. My offer to discuss this in chat stands. I've already passed on to you a description of when a person uses the definite article that is anything but rigid. – GoDucks Jan 14 '16 at 5:36
2

The sentence "I was reading posts" reads more like you read a lot of posts regardless of whether they interested you or not. It is not very clear what posts you are referring to. If you are referring to the posts that interested you, it is better to put some or a few to limit the number of posts you were reading. I would not recommend using the in your example as it could be misleading and it is not clear what posts you read on History Stack Exchange.

It could be better to use a determiner or its equivalents in front of a countable noun especially when it was not mentioned before. The below sentences read better than using the definite article.

I was reading some/a few/a couple of posts there and one specific issue interested me.
I was reading (some) interesting posts there and one specific issue interested me.

If we contrast "I read a few books." with "I read the two books." you will notice that there is difference in the meaning.

In your second example, I would not put the there.

I was in the N.Y. Library. I was reading a few/a couple of/some (all meaning from two or three to unspecified number) books there, and one book interested me.

There could be millions of books in NY Library (unlike your History Stack Exchange posts) and using the for unspecific number of books is not appropriate. Again, you could consider using other words suggested above.

  • Sorry, I did not provide enough context. I wrote my post after becoming interested in a particular issue discussed on History Stack Exchange. – CowperKettle Jan 13 '16 at 7:35
  • @CopperKettle I edited my post. I think the native speaker felt it a little off because there is nothing that can specify posts in your sentence. – user24743 Jan 13 '16 at 7:40
  • @Downvoters. I received 3 downvotes. Any comments? Where can I improve my post? – user24743 Jan 13 '16 at 16:53
  • I didn't downvote, but here's a possibility for why some people did: Many people interested in grammar are somewhat crazy about rules and/or have a fierce tribal dedication to one theory, and upvote or downvote on that basis. It doesn't mean your answer was wrong. Maybe the sentence "It is always better to use a determiner…" came off sounding too much like a rule. IMO, all your examples and advice are good, and your main point, about quantity of posts, is especially insightful. I had not even thought of that when composing my answer, and it's quite important. – Ben Kovitz Jan 13 '16 at 17:13
0

Of course, you should use the definite article. Why? Because you are specific about Stack Exchange, even specific about History Stack Exchange, and furthermore specific about posts that you are interested in!

You are also specific about the place (...was reading posts there...) and also about the topic (-say World War).

In short, you are very specific about the place (site), the niche (history) and also the type of posts (one particular topic/subject), so 'the posts...'!

0

It would be idiomatic to say any of these things...

I was reading at the library...

I was reading a book at the library...

I was looking through some books at the library...

I was reading the latest posts on History StackExchange...

But not:

I was reading the books at the library...

It's not ungrammatical, of course, but the phrase "the books at the library" refers to them en masse.

The books at the library are kept on metal shelves. In the rare book room, the books are protected against fire by an emergency system that seals the room and fills it with an inert gas.

In the same way, "the posts" would refer to all of them.

  • I was discussing this sentence "I was in the N.Y. Library. I was reading the books there" in a chatroom. My explanation for "the books" was that "The books" seems to be generalizing and making it definite at the same time. Definite that the books are indeed from NYL, and generalizing that "books" that you read in NYL can be any book in it, but more than one. But no article "books" does not try to make the fact that books are from NYL definite. It is more focused on conveying that he read some books and that they are from NYL is of small importance, just adding supplementary information. – whitedevil Aug 13 '16 at 19:47
  • But you seem to say it should refer to all of the books in NYP. Is that just one understanding or normal one? – whitedevil Aug 13 '16 at 19:48
0
+500

In Uniqueness, Familiarity, and the Definite Article in English (pdf link) by Betty Birner, University of Pennsylvania, and Gregory Ward, Northwestern University, the authors talk about the use of the definite article with mass and plural nouns. They mention that in both cases, the noun phrase does not have to refer to all of the things mentioned in the definite noun phrase.

For example, see sentence 12:

When I was traveling through Switzerland last year I took a beautiful photograph of the mountains.

The mountains does not refer to (a) all the mountains in Switzerland, or even (b) "every mountain in Switzerland seen by the speaker". It refers to an "undifferentiated subset" of the mountains. This is the same usage as the posts there and the books in the NYPL.

The use of the in a NP with plural count noun (whether mountains, posts, books) does not have to, and sometimes absolutely cannot, refer to all of the things.

The same is true of the bare plural versions if the same noun phrases. Here, the reference is indefinite, and that includes being indefinite as to number. See also the ELL question Necessity of a definite article before the antecedent of relative pronoun for another natural example of the bare plural noun in the sentence

Johnson was helping her country win the space race, calculating trajectories that got spacecraft in and out of space.

The noun phrase trajectories that got spacecraft in and out of space is indefinite as to number. The use of posts there shows the same indefiniteness regarding number. It could refer to all posts but that is not the intent. The intent is to be indefinite.

Using the in the posts there makes the noun phrase definite, but here, as per Birner & Ward, the definite noun phrase does not have to refer to all the posts. What is important, per Birner & Ward is context and inferring the speaker's intent.


Thus, the does not have to refer to all the posts or all the books. The job of the is to make a definite reference instead of an indefinite reference. For all we know, posts could refer to all the posts, but since you make an indefinite reference we can't be sure about the number of posts you mean.

The posts by itself does not refer to all of them. Consider a lady who just sat down with a magazine. Her husband asks her what she is doing. She replies that

she is looking at the ads in the magazine.

She is just making a definite reference; it does not correspond to all the ads, which is what she might say if she were determined or intended to look at them all. Or a boy at high school. He has just started dating. Who does he date?

He dates the girls at his school.

Does this mean he will date all the girls. No.

As a native speaker, the use of the posts in your sentence is what I would use. And I and your Lang-8 proofreader instinctively felt that this was more idiomatic in this context. In one sense that's the entire answer. John Lawler has said in a comment to an ELU post and I paraphrase: English articles are idiomatic and one needs to (almost?) take them on a case to case basis.

On the other hand, you could say posts, but without the definite article it sounds vague; it does this because it is not a definite reference. It is not a question of either/or, but which kind of reference do you wish to make. To the native speaker who corrected you and to me, a definite reference sounds more idiomatic in this context, but it does not rule out saying just posts.)

Here's an example that is similar to yours:

The prices were high at Nieman Marcus. Well except for the fur coats, which were on sale for 50% off.

I just used the fur coats. This is a definite reference. And I can use the because I think you can identify which ones I am talking about. Namely, the ones at Nieman Marcus. But I don't have to use the.

I could have just said Well, except for fur coats, which were on sale for 50% off. This is an indefinite reference (with the zero article). It still means the fur costs at Nieman Marcus: this is clear from context. But otherwise it is not marked as definite.

This is comparable to your OQ. I can make a definite reference if I want. Or I can make an indefinite reference if I want. In this example, making a definite reference seems to be more natural and idiomatic here, and in your context about the posts.)


Note also you use the progressive past tense (was reading), which describes an action in progress. You were reading the posts there when one of them caught your attention, or you were interrupted.

Compare

I was tasting the wines at the the local vineyard when my wife called me on my cell phone.

and

I was tasting the wines at the local winery when I found one I decided to buy. Notice I don't intend to taste all of them, but when I find something I like, I will buy it.

(I would avoid the indefinite mass noun wines here because, like posts it just sounds too indefinite. Wishy washy.)

As for the NYPL, a native listener would assume you mean the books carried by the library. And unless you say otherwise (my books) this is a natural assumption. Just like I am going to the office. Unless I stipulate otherwise, you can assume I mean my office or whichever one I usually go to. The key is that I expect you to be able to identify which office I am talking about.

Again, the books does not mean all the books.

On using the definite article or not, see my answer on ELU to Are there any simple rules for choosing the definite vs. indefinite (vs. none) article?

  • 1
    Wine is not a good example because it is a mass noun. I was tasting wine at Niemann Marcus is equally grammatical and idiomatic. – user24743 Jan 13 '16 at 16:32
  • 1
    @Ranthony Wine is a noun that can be used as a mass noun, as in (the) wine at NM; and a noun that can be used as a count noun when it refers to different types of wines that the vineyard makes or the winery sells: it can sell red wines, white wines, old wines, new wines, bubbly wines, etc. Similar for The coffees in this coffee shop are out of this world: I mean the individual, different types of coffee that can be bought there. I like a red wine after dinner. There is a coffee at Joe's that you just have to taste! – GoDucks Jan 13 '16 at 16:42
  • The issue has been extensively discussed on EL&U. What I am saying is using a count noun without any exception (as in the OP's example, posts) would be a better choice. Also, I don't agree with putting the before wines when you are just tasting it. Maybe it is my primarily-opinion-based, but a mass noun is a mass noun which is broadly used without an article.. Your context at the local winery could be different from the context on History SE. You taste as many varieties of wine, but you don't read as many on History SE. Using the before posts is not better than using some or a few. . – user24743 Jan 13 '16 at 16:51
  • @CopperKettle See my fur coats example; it seems analogous to your posts example. – GoDucks Jan 13 '16 at 17:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.