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From "Creative Blocks" by David Deutsch:

Babbage came upon universality from an unpromising direction. He had been much exercised by the fact that tables of mathematical functions (such as logarithms and cosines) contained mistakes. At the time they were compiled by armies of clerks, known as ‘computers’, which is the origin of the word. Being human, the computers were fallible...

Could we omit the before "computers"? After all, he means "computers generally", as a category of workers, and plural generic noun phrases do not take the: "apples are sold throughout the world", "pirates were dangerous", "hoplites were used in the phalanx formation".

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    I think you've completely misunderstood the point Deutsch is making. He's not talking about "computers generally" - he's very specifically making a little joke when he says Being human, the people who used to be called "computers" were fallible. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jan 17 '16 at 17:29
  • @FumbleFingers - so it is possible to omit the, but then there'll be no joke hidden in the phrase? (Yes, I registered no joke there.. articles are tricky.) – CowperKettle Jan 17 '16 at 17:30
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    I bet you'd have got the joke if you'd been listening to it, and the word the had been changed to those with heavy stress. In the specific context as cited, it would be a very strange thing to say (and probably wouldn't be perceived as funny) if you omitted the article completely. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jan 17 '16 at 17:39
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    @FumbleFingers - When I first read the sentence, I understood that he used the to distinguish "those computers" (i.e. human beings) from "computers" as we understand them today. But still, since he defined "computers" as "human beings hired to perform calculations" in the previous sentence, I wondered whether it might've been possible to use no article, like we do with generic noun phrases. – CowperKettle Jan 17 '16 at 18:01
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    Well, we all know that (digital) computers are in fact fallible, but for all practical purposes, when being contrasted against humans they're effectively infallible. And that's exactly the point Deutsch is talking about (Babbage designed a "hardware" computer specifically because the human skivvies made too many mistakes). If he'd really wanted to drop the article, he could have got away with Being human, computers at that time were fallible. But the joke isn't that funny, and it would probably just fall flat if it had to be "propped up" like that. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jan 17 '16 at 18:23
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I think that you could omit the in that sentence to have it read:

Being human, computers were fallible.

This is grammatically correct, but I feel it loses some emphasis. In this case, the author is talking about a specific subset of clerks - those who computed mathematical tables - so he has used the definite article "the" to emphasis that he is talking about these particular people.

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This is not a generic noun phrase. The computers refers to a specific set of clerks who you could sit across a table from and have a conversation (or could have in the past). You can't do this with generic clerks/computers, any more than you can go to the Chicago Zoo and see generic tigers.

The refers back to a definite group and is thus highly idiomatic. The zero article cannot grammatically refer to that set of clerks.

This seems to be the reason there is no generic plural noun phrase with the and plural count nouns, since the plus plural count noun is always used to refer to real-life things. The camels of the Sahara apparently is too definite to be generic, whereas Camels of the Sahara is not.

As an aside, the author's main purpose of this statement is not to make a joke, but to make a statement of fact regarding the clerks. That humans are fallible is part of the argument of the essay.

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  • The distinction between "generic" and "specific" can be subtle. Often, as in the quotation, either choice can make sense. For example, these sentences are perfectly normal English: "In the 1940s, computers were made from vacuum tubes." "Let's go to the Chicago Zoo because I want to see tigers!" You could also put a "the" before "computers" and "tigers" and the sentences would still make sense, just with a subtle shift of emphasis. – Ben Kovitz Jan 20 '16 at 19:39
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    In In the 1940s, the computers were made from vacuum tubes, the NP beginning with the computers is not a generic NP. Likewise with the tigers. My penultimate paragraph mentions this. In your first sentence (with the before the plural count noun) you are talking about the specific computers made in the 1940s, in the second, the specific tigers at the Chicago Zoo. – GoDucks Jan 20 '16 at 19:54
  • Regarding humor, the author went out of his way to explain the obsolete sense of "computer". He could have just said that in the 19th century, tables of mathematical functions were compiled manually, without taking the digression into etymology. It is possible, though unlikely, that the author was just going on a tangent and didn't notice the irony in saying that computers were human. But most native speakers would notice it even if it wasn't intended, because "computers" and "humans" are frequently contrasted today, as in "human-computer interfaces" and much common usage. – Ben Kovitz Jan 20 '16 at 19:55
  • There's one other error here: "armies of clerks" is meant generally. The sentence could have been worded "In general, at that time, mathematical tables were compiled by armies of clerks." If you're not accustomed to articles, this can be confusing! One key here is that the sentence describes a common practice, not a specific occurrence of that practice. If you replaced "armies of clerks" with the name of every clerk actually working in the 19th century, then you'd lose some of the meaning, because it includes fictional and hypothetical clerks, too—even clerks that haven't been imagined. – Ben Kovitz Jan 21 '16 at 2:29
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Yes! Including "the" is inconsistent with the previous sentence and weakens the irony.

The previous sentence explained that people who compiled mathematical tables were called "computers". That is enough to establish that choices of articles can now suit this new (actually, very old) sense of "computer". So now, "computers" (with no article) refers in general to people who compile mathematical tables. "The computers" refers to a specific group of such people—but no such specific group is referred to. However, you can say "the computers" in the following sentence to limit that sentence to the actual clerks—that is, if you want to switch from general reference to specific reference. However, in the quoted paragraph, there's no need to do that.

Notice how "the" spoils the humor. If you were going to say (falsely) that our modern, electronic computers are human and therefore fallible, you'd say "Being human, computers are fallible." There's no "the", because you're talking about computers (in the modern sense) in general, not about a specific group of computers. Thus the irony in the quotation is partly spoiled. The idea is that to someone who doesn't know the old sense of "computer", the sentence would be plainly false, but the reader who does know the old sense can see why it's true and enjoy the contrast with the ignorant reader's interpretation. I almost didn't even get the joke because the "the" was stuck in there.

Congratulate yourself: you caught a subtle error involving an article!

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    I'm out of votes for now, but apparently in five hours I can downvote this answer. First, the computers makes a definite reference to 'armies of clerks' already mentioned. Second, the author is not being humorous. This may be clearer if one reads the entire article, rather than just this excerpt. – GoDucks Jan 19 '16 at 18:24
  • @GoDucks That's an interesting hypothesis: maybe David Deutsch is so dense that he wouldn't notice the irony in saying that "computers" were human and therefore fallible, and maybe he thought that the people who manually compiled mathematical tables were a just-referenced definite group of present-day electronic computers. Indeed academic philosophers are not well known for common sense. But for someone learning English, I think this is an excellent observation: "the" is unnecessary because "computers" can reasonably be meant generally (in the sense just defined). – Ben Kovitz Jan 20 '16 at 17:20

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