Lesson 1: 'The' or 'no article' for specific and general - difficult cases

You've already learned that we use 'the' for things that are specific, and 'no article' + plural or uncountable nouns when we're talking in general.

  • The books on the table are mine [clearly specific].
  • Books are useful [clearly general].


However, sometimes the line between specific and general is not clear. For example:

  • It's important for young people to have access to (the) books in the library [we can choose the or 'no article'].
  • (The) books in England are quite expensive [we can choose the or 'no article'].


There isn't a clear, definite line between general and specific, and in the middle it's often possible to choose either the or 'no article'. In situations where we can choose, using the makes it clear that we think the listener knows which particular group of things or people we're talking about.


We often use nouns in a general way, even if they have an adjective in front. For example, we say:

  • I love Italian coffee.

This is talking about Italian coffee in general. If I'm talking about a particular Italian coffee and I think the listener understands which coffee I mean, then of course I can use the in the normal way:

  • I love the Italian coffee that they serve in this café.


Sometimes the choice between general and specific depends more on the grammar of the sentence than the meaning of the words. When we follow the noun with the preposition of, we tend to use the, even when the meaning is the same:


  • The music of the 1920s is very popular in London just now.

but

  • 1920s music is very popular in London just now.


  • I enjoy studying the philosophy of France.

but

  • I enjoy studying French philosophy.