There is a rather unfortunate tendency among technical writers to overuse the word “the,” we at Precision Science Editing have found. As editors, we teach that, like salt, definite articles are at their best when applied sparingly. In science writing, the incorrect use of articles can entirely change the intended meaning of the text.
The word “The” can be used to signal any of several things to readers of your article or paper:
- The noun you’re modifying is specific
- The noun you’re modifying is not new to the reader
- You intend for a singular noun to refer to an entire class
“The exact location and lineage of the first domesticated dog are still under debate,” Udell and Wynne observe in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. A specific dog is being mentioned (the first one to be domesticated), so there is a need for the definite article. A man is walking down a road. There is a dog with the man (the reader already knows there is a man).
When first introducing a subject to readers, on the other hand, it is appropriate to use an indefinite article. That’s because the noun is not yet part of the common ground you share. Later in the piece, you can use the definite article, knowing he/she is very likely to understand the reference.
“The” may be used when you intend for a singular noun to refer to an entire class: “The group was ready to leave.” The definite article used with a singular countable noun (“group”) implies that only one example is relevant to the situation,” explains the Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing. The definite article can also refer to the entire class of animals, inventions, or instruments. The Mayfield Handbook offers the following example: “The honey possum of Australia is the only mammal that lives exclusively on nectar.”
It’s interesting to note that, when the noun number is preceded by the definite article, the noun itself is treated as singular, whereas when number is preceded by “a”, it is treated as plural! “A number of plans were suggested.” On the other hand, you would write “The number of proposals was overwhelming.”
“English Teacher Melanie” offers some simple examples of when no article is needed:
- Categories in general: “Cats make great pets.”
- Non-countable nouns: “He eats no meat.”
- Companies: “Bill Gates founded Microsoft.”
- Universities: “She goes to Oxford.”
- Noun plus number: “The train to Paris leaves from Platform 2.”
- Acronyms: “NATO ambassadors met to discuss the situation.”
Writers Stack Exchange, a question–answer site for professional writers and editors, has this advice to offer: “Try to think, at every ‘the’ you write, whether you really mean to write about a specific object or if you mean to write about a more general case. Remember, definite articles are best applied sparingly.
- by Rick of the Precision Science Editing blog team