How to use 'the'...

THE is a small word but a very troublesome one. It is one of the most common errors we see when looking at IELTS candidates writing and it can lower your band score if you make repeated errors with definite articles.


Look at these two sentences. They are both correct:


a) Most middle-aged people are slightly overweight.

b) Most of THE middle-aged people I know are obsessed with losing weight.


What is the difference? Why do we use THE in the second sentence?


Sentence a) refers to all middle-aged people

Sentence b) refers to a smaller group of middle-aged people (the middle-aged people who I know)


EXAMPLES


  • All students struggle with exam nerves.

  • All of the students studying at my university found the exam nearly impossible.


  • Most doctors have spent seven or eight years studying medicine.

  • Most of the doctors in Cuba are extremely well-qualified.


  • Almost all drivers have had an accident at some time or other.

  • Almost all of the drivers who responded to the survey claimed never to have had an accident.


  • A significant proportion of New Yorkers admitted that they did not always feel safe in the city.

  • A significant proportion of the New Yorkers who were surveyed admitted that they sometimes felt unsafe in the city.


  • Some countries are beginning to experience extreme weather which could be the result of global warming.

  • Some of the countries in Latin America have suffered recently from flooding and landslides.


  • A few mistakes can be tolerated.

  • A few of the mistakes made by IELTS candidates are really unnecessary.


  • Hardly any people still live in the countryside.

  • Hardly any of the people still living in the countryside can find a job.


  • No trains have been running, due to the excessively cold weather.

  • None of the trains which were scheduled to leave the station have actually departed.


EXPLANATION


If you understand why we use THE in the second sentence, you will find using THE easier. In the first sentence we are referring to a general group of ‘people’, ‘students’ etc. The person reading or listening to us does not know EXACTLY, SPECIFICALLY or DEFINITELY which ‘people’ or ‘students’ we are speaking or writing about. However, in the second sentence, the reader or listener knows that we are speaking or writing about an EXACT, SEPCIFIC or DEFINITE group of ‘people’, ‘students’ or ‘New Yorkers’. We are writing about the ‘New Yorkers’ who ‘were surveyed’ and not writing about the others! So, we often use THE because the person reading or listening understands which ‘students’, ‘people’ or ‘New Yorkers’ we mean. The reader or listener does not need to ask ‘Which one?’ or ‘Which ones?’


That is not the end of THE story (I used THE here because you know I am writing about the story called ‘How to use THE’). We will return to this tricky issue in another post.

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