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.”[1]  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.


[1] Greenbaum, Sidney and Randolph Quirk.  A Student’s Grammar of the English Language. Longman, 1990. (p.91)

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi Jenifer,

    You may want to create a link to the videos that are archived here:
    http://www.archive.org/search.php?query=jenniferesl

    There are many countries that block youtube (China first) and, as your new website is not blocked there, you may want to let those students take advantage of you.

    PS One day we shall have to interview you on WIZIQ. I will not treat you Like Mike Marzio see this link: http://myeslfriends.blogspot.com/2010/03/real-english-exposed.html
    but it would be fun and we could show some of the students at WIZIQ how to access and use your materials.

    George Machlan
    An old fan of yours
    gmachlan@gmail.com

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Hello George –
      RE: access to my material
      Since the spring of last year, I’ve been posting follow-up exercises on EnglishCafe for all of my videos. I embed the video on that site in a blog posting. EnglishCafe is accessible to all, unlike YouTube. The videos are embedded from Vimeo. I still want to use YouTube as my main platform, but I’ll use Vimeo on a smaller scale to make videos accessible to regions where YouTube is blocked.

      RE: Interviews
      I wish I could join the live chat with Mike Marzio, but I don’t think I’ll be able to. I’d be happy to support Mike’s work since I think his approach to ESL/ EFL videos is so unique. If you think about it, his style and my style are so different, yet they can complement each other. I’m more bottom-up. He’s more top-down. I’m in front of the camera. He’s behind the camera. I make some use of other speakers. He only uses other speakers. No one YouTuber is going to meet all the needs learners have. I think if students watch a few different channels, they’ll get a fairly comprehensive form of instruction.

  2. Roman D says:

    Hello Jennifer, thank you for the article. However I am totally confused now. When I go to the Purdue website and read about articles I am seeing the following:

    Some common types of nouns that don’t take an article are:
    Names of languages and nationalities: Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian (unless you are referring to the population of the nation: “The Spanish are known for their warm hospitality.”)

    Where your are saying:
    I feel that we can talk about Americans (zero article + plural noun) when referring to the general population in the U.S.

    So which one is correct? Thank you

    1. I agree that this is a tricky topic.

      Some nationalities always take an article. I wrote:
      “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?”

      With other nationalities, there is variation in use.
      Merriam-Webster does not use an article before a general reference to the population of the U.S.
      http://www.learnersdictionary.com/search/American%5B1%5D

      I believe it’s more common to use the zero article before nationalities ending in -an (Americans, Canadians, Mexicans…) to make a general reference. This practice is seen in the news.
      Here’s just one of many examples:
      “The American Red Cross, Occupy Sandy and Americans Helping Each Other”
      http://www.forbes.com/sites/garyshapiro/2012/11/15/the-american-red-cross-occupy-sandy-and-americans-helping-each-other/

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