Here is a tale from a video game. Sheogorath is a god, a so-called Daedric Prince, whose sphere is Madness, and whose motives are unknowable.

In the earliest of days, in a time when the world was still raw, Sheogorath decided to walk amongst the mortals. He donned his guise of Gentleman With a Cane, and moved from place to place without being recognized. After eleven days and eleven nights, Sheogorath decided that life among mortals was even more boring than his otherworldly existence.

"What can I do to make their lives more interesting?" he said to himself. At that same moment, a young woman nearby commented wistfully to herself, "The sounds of the birds are so beautiful."

Sheogorath silently agreed with her. Mortals could not make the beautiful and inspired calls of birds. Their voices were wretched and mundane. He could not change the nature of mortals, for that was the purview of other Daedric Princes. However, he could give them tools to make beautiful sounds.

Sheogorath took hold of the petulant woman and ripped her asunder. From her tendons he made lutes. From her skull and arm bones he made a drum. From her bones he made flutes. He presented these gifts to the mortals, and thus Music was born.

I don't see why the is being used in those two sentences. The definite article doesn't seem to be describing any specific mortals.

There was an answer about half a month ago:

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

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.

As in the above example, is the article in my text referring to all mortals as a single entity (i.e. not individually)?

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    It's really just an optional stylistic choice in your case. Semantically equivalent, apart from the last one - which would be a bit "odd" without the article (I think it would tend to imply presented these gifts to certain unspecified individual mortals). But consider Julian Assange does not trust the Americans. With the article, it (correctly) means he doesn't trust Americans collectively (as represented by the US govt). Without, it would (wrongly) mean he doesn't trust any individual who happens to be an American. Feb 6, 2016 at 21:15

3 Answers 3


It's normal usage, and your hunch is correct: this has nothing to do with describing any "specific" mortals. This is a case where English uses "the" to reference a group of people or a species in a generalized sense. For example:

I like walking alone in the woods so that I can listen to the birds.

There he [Biddle] lived with the natives, learned their language, and worked at his painting.

Through characters like Tom Bombadil and the Ents, Tolkien seems to be saying that nature is an entity separate from ourselves. (Anne Pienciak)

You have made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor. (Ps. 8)

Some additional information about varied uses of the can be found at this related ELL question.


The 'the' refers to all mortals as a single entity.

Note that when you omit the 'the', you are usually referring to mortals as a class, you are signaling to the reader that you are about to describe or define that class.

like below...

"Mortals could not make the beautiful and inspired calls of birds."


A way to explain the use of the is to ask what the choice of determiner means to the person whose thoughts the words reveal, whoever that may be.

In normal conversation, people speak for themselves. In a story, sometimes the narrator is revealing his or her own thoughts but sometimes the thoughts of the character whose story is being told.

The choice of a definite article here implies that someone, either the narrator or Sheogorath, has in mind members of a particular class, just as we might if we were to say

The king decided to walk among the commoners.

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