Do we ever say, "In the English literature" ? Is it correct?

For example:

"Hamlet" is a classic play in the English literature.


"Hamlet" is a classic play in English literature.

2 Answers 2


"Literature" is a noncount abstract noun. When we use such nouns generically, to describe "literature in general", we usually don't use the definite article.

He is studying literature.

We also usually don't use the definite article if the noncount abstract noun is pre-modified (has a describing word before it):

He is studying English literature.

If the nouncount abstract noun is post-modified (especially by an of-phrase), we usually use the definite article:

He is studying the literature of England.

The same probably applies to the whole phrase "English literature": if it has a post-modifying phrase, we can use the definite article. I've found an example on Google Books:

... 'a moral force of great significance,' he showed, as often in his judgments of men, an insight which, at the same time, was prophetic; for Carlyle, unquestionably, was the strongest moral force in the English literature of the nineteenth century. Ward, Waller, 1909

In most cases though, especially if there's no post-modifying phrase, I believe the predominant form will be without the definite article:

Hamlet is one of the most famous works in English literature.

Let's use Ngram for a rough estimate:

enter image description here

The graph reflecting "in the English literature" could be partly explained by the presence of constructions like

He has chosen to enroll in the English literature course. ("the English literature" serves as an adjective to the word "course", and not as a noun phrase in its own right)

However, we should remember that the word "literature" can mean different things. It can mean "a body of scientific publications", and in some contexts your example phrase can mean "the collection of scientific papers devoted to a particular issue and published in English". Here's an excerpt from "Multiple Sclerosis: The History of a Disease" by Dr. T. Jock Murray, MS:

Greenfield and King noted that the changes seen in the axons have been ignored in the English literature, but were well-described in the French and German literature. There were nerve sprouts, nerve bulbs and loops, and boules de retraction interpreted as regenerative phenomena. Some of these changes, particularly the boules de retraction, were probably changes representing degeneration and they pointed out illustrations of this degenerative change in the works of Cajal.

They then discussed gliosis, noting that it was one of the six stages in the natural history of MS (the fourth) noted by Dawson, and that in the English literature, it was regarded as a secondary phenomenon, whereas in the Continental literature it was regarded as a primary process, even though the view of glial change as the primary cause put forward by Strümpell and Müller was not tenable.

Here the author, being a native speaker of English, uses "the" in "in the English literature" even though the phrase is not post-modified. This usage also contribues to the red low-lying graph on the Ngram.


Quirk et al., "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language", Unit 5.58, "The articles with abstract noncount nouns"

  • 6
    Sir, I've never seen a more comprehensive answer to a question. Your English is word perfect. I bow to the Master. I hope everyone on this site upvotes your answer. May 14, 2016 at 6:21
  • @CathyGartaganis - thank you for such an enthusiastic comment, Cathy! I find artles the most complex part of the English language. May 14, 2016 at 17:08
  • Is there a way for a Luddite like me to understand how to find a reference for a phrase in literature using Google Books? Step by step? If not, no worries. May 14, 2016 at 17:16
  • @CathyGartaganis - welcome to the chat!. Maybe I could help you. May 14, 2016 at 17:22
  • 3
    "... even though the phrase is not post-modified" - it is implicitly modified, meaning something like "the English literature about Multiple Sclerosis". I think the word "literature" without an article usually implies "writing that is of artistic value" (i.e. plays, novels, poetry, etc), and excludes technical or scientific writing. (Google shows that some novels have been written about characters with MS, but they are irrelevant to Dr Murray's work!)
    – alephzero
    May 15, 2016 at 2:06

"Hamlet" is a classic play in English literature.

In this sentence, English literature is regarded as a genre rather than a specific body of text. You only use the for something specific, so you would not put the in front of it in this sentence.

By contrast, here are some specific usages of literature:

Here is an updated copy of the sales literature.

I can't find any information about this in the literature.

His specialist subject is the literature of India.

  • Also, in "There was a typo in the English literature, but the rest of the documents translations are fine."
    – Kevin
    May 14, 2016 at 13:58

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