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From The Economist's article on Detroit's doldrums:

Detroit’s population has fallen by 60% since 1950. ... Shrubs, weeds and raccoons have reclaimed empty neighbourhoods.

Would it be acceptable to put the definite article before the "empty neighborhoods"? Both the reader and the writer are aware where exactly these neighborhoods are, from the preceding text. Therefore the noun should have definite reference; hence,

Detroit’s population has fallen by 60% since 1950. ... Shrubs, weeds and raccoons have reclaimed the empty neighbourhoods.

If the first quote is more appropriate, why? How would adding THE shift the meaning?

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There is a subtle difference between the two. In the original sentence, saying "reclaimed empty neighborhoods" means that some amount of empty neighborhoods has been reclaimed. It doesn't mean that all of them have.

However when you add the to the sentence, you're now referring to the set of all the empty neighborhoods in Detroit. This changes the meaning a bit. It's likely that not all of the neighborhoods have been overtaken by wildlife, hence the author's decision to omit the.

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  • Thank you, Wendi! So if a person says "I've been to the foreign countries" it would mean he visited each country lying abroad? – CowperKettle Jul 30 '13 at 15:29
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    That shift is so subtle that I'm not even sure your conclusion is completely accurate. The author might simply prefer the more concise wording. After all, reclaimed the empty neighborhoods could mean "[some of] the empty neighborhoods" just as easily as "[all of] the empty neighborhoods." Really, it's just another way of saying that the neighborhoods have been infiltrated by shrubs, weeds, and raccoons. @Copper: No, you would say "I've been to all foreign countries" if you've seen them all, and "I've been to several foreign countries" if you still have some left on your list. – J.R. Jul 30 '13 at 16:35
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    @J.R. Hmm. Well, perhaps. I parsed "reclaimed the empty neighborhoods" as "reclaimed (the set of Neighborhoods which were Empty)", meaning all of them (that were empty). But maybe that's too math-like a perspective. It's what I would infer, but I can see it open to other interpretations. – WendiKidd Jul 30 '13 at 17:32
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    Yes, it's subtle. If the writer was just discussing empty neighborhoods, and then said "reclaimed the empty neighborhoods", I think I'd assume he meant all the ones just discussed, which might mean all empty neighborhoods in Detroit, or some smaller set, like if he had just been discussing "empty neighborhoods north of 8 Mile Road" or some such. But it's subtle enough that if context called for a different reading, or if I knew that some of the neighborhoods had been recovered by squirrels rather than raccoons :-) it wouldn't be jarring. – Jay Jul 30 '13 at 19:16
  • "However when you add 'the' to the sentence, you're now referring to the set of all the empty neighborhoods in Detroit." I don't like that generalization; look where it led the O.P. We do know this: neighborhoods have been abandoned; those neighborhoods are now being overrun with brush and wildlife. Perhaps that's a nebulous generality (many parts of many neighborhoods), or perhaps every single yard in those abandoned neighborhoods has been overrun like that. In my mind, which of those interpretations is the correct one doesn't hinge on whether the definite article is included or excluded. – J.R. Jul 30 '13 at 21:17
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(In this answer, I will reach the same conclusion WendiKidd does, but I will do so in my own way.)

The definite article is a pragmatic signal. It tells the listener (or reader) to locate the noun it modifies within the conceptual space that is shared with the speaker (or writer). Detroit has been introduced into the discourse, but particular neighborhoods in Detroit have not; if the definite article were used, then as WendiKidd says, it could only refer to "the neighborhoods of Detroit", that is, all neighborhoods of Detroit.

Without an article, there is no such signal. Instead, the author speaks of neighborhoods in general, limited by context to the topic of Detroit, giving us the meaning some neighborhoods in Detroit. Since the meaning differs (some versus all), inserting the definite article is not appropriate.

However, you must not generalize from this that the definite article means all. It does not. If the author had previously talked about specific neighborhoods, then these neighborhoods would be within the shared conceptual space, able to be referred to by a definite article. Nor should you conclude that the definite article must refer to information overtly introduced in the current article or conversation (compare "the President of the United States") or to information familiar to the reader (compare "beware of the dog"). This is why I call it a pragmatic signal; what exactly the reader does with it depends on context, and which article if any is appropriate cannot be determined from syntax alone.

Unfortunately, a complete explanation of definiteness is beyond the scope of this answer.

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  • I really like this answer - I think you're absolutely right that in OP's particular context, shared conceptual space is central to explaining the relevance of the definite article. I wonder if it's easier to generalise that the = all if we add the further stipulation there must be at least one (and the verb form will indicate whether there is in fact only one). That would cover the distinction between "Watch out for the puddle" and "Watch out for a puddle" or "Watch out for puddles", say. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 30 '13 at 20:36
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Would it be acceptable to put the definite article before the "empty neighborhoods"? Both the reader and the writer are aware where exactly these neighborhoods are, from the preceding text. Therefore the noun should have definite reference.

That interpretation is not correct; the reader is NOT told which neighborhoods are in trouble. Here is the entire paragraph:

What was once the country’s fourth-most-populous city grew rich thanks largely to a single industry. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler once made nearly all the cars sold in America; now, thanks to competition from foreign brands built in non-union states, they sell less than half. Detroit’s population has fallen by 60% since 1950. The murder rate is 11 times the national average. The previous mayor is in prison. Shrubs, weeds and raccoons have reclaimed empty neighbourhoods. The debts racked up when Detroit was big and rich are unpayable now that it is smaller and poor.

The author is describing how the city of Detroit is crumbling. Not every neighborhood is being overrun with wildlife, but an unspecified number of neighborhoods have become empty, and those neighborhoods are being overrun with wildlife.

Could you add a definite article? Sure:

The previous mayor is in prison. Shrubs, weeds and raccoons have reclaimed the empty neighbourhoods.

Either way (with or without the article), some neighborhoods are emptying out, and some raccoons are moving into those neighborhoods.

I disagree that the sentence should include a definite article, although I'd acknowledge that the sentence could include the definite article. Many times, the inclusion or exclusion of an article doesn't really alter the meaning of the sentence, and it's not worth spending a lot time overanayzing it. For example:

My daughter got a new job at the library. She spent all day reshelving books.
My daughter got a new job at the library. She spent all day reshelving the books.

Is there a difference? I suppose so. Without the article, she reshelved books all day. With the article, she reshelved specific books all day. On the other hand, though, is that difference significant? Either way, her shoulders are sore. Either way, all the books that needed reshelving got reshelved. Either way, she spent several hours putting books back on the shelves.

So, which "reshelving" sentence is better? That's like asking which face is on the front of this cube:

Where is the front? ABCD? Or EFGH?

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