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English as a Second Language/The definite article / zero article


Dear Shannon,

Please read the following:

"In the last ten years, the number of cars on the roads in Syria has gone up by 30%. Over 2000 people die every year in road accidents in Syria, 30% of the victims are children."

The rule says "use a plural noun without 'the' for talking about things in general". For this reason 'cars' has no definite article. However, I wonder why the writer say 'the roads in Syria', then 'road accidents in Syria'. I know there is another rule saying "use the definite article before a noun made definite by the addition of a phrase or clause", but I do not think it applies here. Please elaborate and guide me to master the use of this definite article.

Another example is the following:

"For many centuries, Damascus was the trade centre for the whole region, and today it is a popular tourist destination and the favourite location for foreigners wanting to learn Arabic. It is a beautiful place to visit. The streets are full of people buying and selling. You can ask any of the locals questions."

I also wonder why the write uses 'the' before 'favourite location' and 'the' before 'streets and 'locals'.

Sorry for this long question! I highly appreciate your effort and time.

God bless you!
Best regards,
Antoine Ghannoum

The rule is sloppy.

Yes, you have two opposing rules.  One that says to omit the definite article and make the noun plural to make something into a general topic, and in addition to the rule you stated, sometimes we have to remember to follow the normal rules of articles: a/an for something that is not definite but needs to be counted and 'the' for a definite or specific noun or noun group (remember that making something plural, still makes it plural, so it is not possible to use the pluralization rule for singular objects that must remain singular).

"In the last ten years,
(this is a specific time period)

the number of cars
(a specific piece of data)
on the roads
(it could be optional here, but I think you addition of a phrase rule applies)
in Syria
(a name of a country.  No need for "the" unless it is in the country's name)
has gone up by 30%. Over 2000 people die every year in road accidents
(here, road accidents are not specific.  We are speaking about accidents in general)
in Syria, 30% of the victims
(this sentence is not grammatically correct.  I would expect a semicolon and not a comma, or I would place "and" after the comma.  "The" is probably optional here too, but since we just referred to a specific group of 2,000 people, then it makes more sense to use "the" since that is a specific reference.)
are children."

"For many centuries, Damascus was the trade centre
(we are speaking specifically, not generally)
for the whole region,
(Again, a specific geographic area, not several areas in general)
and today it is a popular tourist destination
(one destination)
and the favourite location
("a" could also work here, but now we want to imply the #1 top location, so we must use "the")
for foreigners wanting to learn Arabic. It is a beautiful place
(one out of many beautiful places)
to visit. The streets
(Here you could omit "the" if you wish.  It is used here to specifically refer to the streets of Damascus, and not streets in general)
are full of people
(we don't need to talk about specific people here)
buying and selling. You can ask any of the locals
(any of the locals implies we are going to choose one from a group.  The only other option is to erase the whole phrase and say "a local," but the problem is that "a" doesn't provide the idea of randomness.  Therefore another option is "any local."  The use of "any of the locals" just emphasizes the open randomness of choosing one person out of this specific group of people on the streets of Damascus)

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Shannon Cole


I can answer questions related to learning the English and Spanish language.


I have taught ESL and Spanish since 1998 at the university and middle school levels. I am a native of the U.S., and have taught in both the U.S. and Mexico.

I am owner and operator of, an online language school.

Georgia TESOL in Action (1999)

B.A. in Spanish; M.Ed. in Language Education

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I have clients worldwide, some who want their documents proofread, and others who take lessons with me through the Internet. Some work at high-profile companies and government organizations. Besides the U.S. and Mexico, my recent students come from South Korea, Switzerland, Turkey, Colombia, Russia, Italy, Paraguay, China, Japan, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia.

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