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An excerpt from The Economist's article on bedtime regime's correlation with IQ scores.

Here I've committed two kinds of mismatches, putting THE before the second mention of "interviewers" and using THE before both instances of "children" which in the original text have zero articles. Below I'll try to explain how I see the newspaper's article usage choices.

The bedtime information they used was collected during four visits interviewers made to the homes of those participating in the study. These happened when the children were nine months, three years, five years and seven years of age. Besides asking whether the children had set bedtimes on weekdays and if they always, usually, sometimes or never made them, interviewers collected information about family routines, economic circumstances and other matters—including whether children were read to before they went to sleep and whether they had a television in their bedroom. The children in question were also asked, at the ages of three, five and seven, to take standardised reading, mathematical and spatial-awareness tests, from which their IQs could be estimated.

Dr Kelly’s report, just published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, shows that by the time children had reached the age of seven, not having had a regular bedtime did seem to affect their cognition ...

  1. "Interviewers" seem to take zero articles because they could've been different persons each time, since information gathering took 7 years. An almost generic reference.

  2. The first use of the zero article (Ø) with "children" is aimed at omitting repetition in lookalike structures "whether X had .." in one sentence.

  3. The second use of "Ø children" seems to comply with snailboat's comprehensive answer to my previous question. In the text's shared conceptual space, "children" means not all kids generically but those taking part in the study. Using THE would make it seem (to a native speaker), in combination with "not having had", that they all suffered (or enjoyed) irregular bedtime regimes. Using the zero article would put "children" in "specific indefinite" reference, and the combination with "not having had" would now be comprehended as "some had regular, some irregular bedtimes".

Am I right?

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    I suspect that the first "Ø children" is because some households had other children than those in the study, and the investigators are asking about family routines - that is, whether the family routinely read to all children in the family, not just those studied. – StoneyB Jul 31 '13 at 16:58
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The article "the" (in uses other than proper names such as "The Beatles" or "the Empire State Building") as to be anchored to some semantic frame: a context in which it has a clear scope within which it refers to something specific. Such a frame can be established directly via a prior mention of the subject, or less directly where the existence of the subject, in connection with the frame, is understood.

If such a frame exists, but the article is not used, then the word is generic in some sense; it refers to the class of thing rather than the specific instance or instances which are tied to the frame.

Suppose that someone says, out of the blue:

I sent the interviewers to various homes. *

Immediately, the native English speakers asks, "Huh? What interviewers? Did I miss something?". There is no frame which establishes the scope for "the" in "the interviewers". Interviewers has to be used without an article (or with the article "an" if there is a single interviewer):

I sent {interviewers|an interviewer} to various homes.

This first use without the article "the" creates a frame, so that subsequent uses of "interviewer" or "interviewers" can use it. The subsequent uses of the article makes it clear that these references are to the same interviewers that were introduced:

I sent {interviewers|an interviewer} to various homes.

The {interviewers|interviewer} collected information.

{Interviewers have|An interviewer has} an interesting job.

In the second sentence, the speaker uses the article to tie "interviewers" to the previously established frame, making it clear that these interviewers are the same ones that were sent to various homes. It would be ungrammatical to omit "the" here.

In the third sentence, the article "the" is not used, making it clear that this is a statement about all such interviewers (the entire class of them) rather than just the specific interviewers (instance of a class) which the speaker sent to various homes as part of that study.

Now suppose that the study is introduced first. It is capable of creating a frame which allows the article to be used, but it is optional:

I conducted a research study.

During this study, I sent {the} interviewers to various homes.

If the article is omitted, it is much like the previous situation: it is a first mention of some interviewers. These interviewers become attached to the study, creating a frame for the use of "the"; subsequently, we can refer to them as "the interviewers".

If the article is used, it is still acceptable. The reason is that the prior mention of a "research study" creates enough of a frame that there is a plausible scope for "the interviewers". The listener understands that, aha, the study involves staff members who are interviewers, and "the interviewers" refers to those ones. Since the listener is able to answer the question, "What interviewers?", the article is acceptable.

The article "the" appears on "children" because it is clearly anchored to a frame. That frame is established indirectly by the reference to "homes". What children? The children living in the homes visited by researchers.

The article is needed because we cannot say "children were nine months, three years, five years and seven years" about the class of children as such.

Consider:

My friend has three small children.

{The} children are cute.

If we do not have the article, then the second sentence is a comment about all children everywhere. If we have the, then it is about my friend's children who were previously mentioned.

If no children were previously mentioned, then "The children are cute." is erroneous.

Things do not have to be explicitly mentioned; they can be merely alluded to.

New neighbors moved in across the street.

The children are really cute!

Though no children were mentioned, it is semantically clear that the neighbors must have children and it is these children who are cute. It is the only interpretation which makes the second sentence grammatical.

Lastly, note that the frames to which "the" is attached do not have to lexically precede a word. They can occur later in a sentence. For instance:

The interviewers that I sent to various homes as part of a research study I am working on are actually good friends of mine.

Here "the interviewers" refers forward to the context of the research study.

  • For example, "I conducted a three day study, during which I sent {the*|} interviewers to various homes". If we have "the" here, the native English speaking reader will ask, "The interviewers? What interviewers?" I disagree. I wouldn't ask that question; instead, I'd do what you did with 'children', and conclude, "Ah, they were introduced indirectly via the reference to 'study'." Therefore, I believe that, in your three-day study example, the article before 'interviewers' could be included or omitted. Other than that, though, I agree with your answer. – J.R. Jul 31 '13 at 17:38
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    +1 Actually, in the article itself the children were explicitly identified before this passage: "11,178 children born in Britain between September 2000 and January 2002" – StoneyB Jul 31 '13 at 18:38
  • @J.R. Oops, you're right. Yes, indeed, the study does create a frame which creaetes a scope to which the article in "the interviewers" can be attached. It is the plain sentence, with no introduction, which has a problem: "I sent the interviewers to various homes". What interviewers? – Kaz Jul 31 '13 at 18:51
  • @Kaz: I still don't see a problem. In that example, I'd assume it's the interviewers you sent. There are many contexts where inclusion or omission of the article is critical, and there are a few contexts where it makes very little difference. Too often I've seen a non-native fret over whether or not to use a "the", and, in that particular context, it didn't really make much difference, so all that fretting was for naught. – J.R. Jul 31 '13 at 21:00
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    @J.R. If you tell me, "I sent the interviewers", that means you expect me to understand some prior context in which interviewers were mentioned explicitly, or in which the existence of interviewers is inferred. Otherwise, the article is superfluous (and I might suspect you're a non-native speaker). This is different from something like "I dropped my suit off at the cleaners" or "I called the police". – Kaz Jul 31 '13 at 21:21

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