Student Stumper 19: Americans vs. The Americans
QUESTION: My grammar book says I should use the before nationalities and gives the Americans as an example. But when I listen to people talk, I often hear Americans with no article. Which way is right?
ANSWER: This question was posted in the comment section on my YouTube channel, and the current monthly poll on my website is showing a strong interest in a lesson on articles. I suppose the time has finally come to tackle this broad and commonly confusing topic. I’ll most certainly have to create a series of lessons to do the topic justice, and one of the lessons will have to address the use of articles with languages and nationalities.
I sent an initial reply to this viewer explaining use of the zero article versus use of the definite article. I feel that we can talk about Americans (zero article + plural noun) when referring to the general population in the U.S., as in Americans recognize cultural differences which are related to geographical regions within the U.S. In contrast, we say the Americans when we are referring to a specific group of U.S. citizens. For example: The Americans did well at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. = Not all Americans, just the U.S. athletes who participated in those events.
When I began to look for confirmation of my explanation, I accumulated questions rather than answers. A copy of a grammar handbook by Greenbaum and Quirk lists that one use of the definite article is for plural nouns used generically, as in the Russians: “The Russians are a deeply patriotic people.” Hmm, but isn’t it also correct to say Russians are deeply patriotic? I think so. Can we interchange the two subjects? Russians are a deeply patriotic people. / The Russians are deeply patriotic. I’m not so sure. Can we classify people the same way we would animals? For example, we can say either the whale is a mammal or whales are mammals. Which subject is more appropriate for classification: Russians or the Russians? Are both acceptable?
Look at my examples below. Do all three sentences classify Americans?
(1)The Americans are also a deeply patriotic people.
(2) The Americans are a proud nation.
(3) Americans take pride in their country.
I might argue that sentences 1 and 2 are classifying Americans (naming a specific people or nation), but sentence 3 is simply making a comment about Americans in general, i.e., the purpose isn’t to classify but to describe. Does that make sense?
Of course, there’s also the group of nationalities that must always be used with a definite article: the French, the Finnish, the Swiss, etc. With these nationalities, we’d have to use the + nationality in all three model sentences, correct?
(1)The French are also a deeply patriotic people.
(2) The French are a proud nation.
(3) The French take pride in their country.
As I move ahead with plans to create a video series on articles, your comments are most welcome! Thank you.
 Greenbaum, Sidney and Randolph Quirk. A Student’s Grammar of the English Language. Longman, 1990. Explore posts in the same categories: Grammar, Student Stumpers comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.