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I'm not a native English speaker, and I find that my English writing contains too many definite article "the" when writing scientific reports, and too many "I" when writing in informal settings (like emails, or this question).

I do a lot of reading (both literary books and newspapers) and see that both "the" and "I" are used in very moderate portion. Are there unwritten rules/techniques to have such nice writing?

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It's a bit challenging to imagine the excessive use of these words. Why not give us an example of text that concerns you, and we can comment on it? –  John M. Landsberg Sep 19 '13 at 5:30
For English usage guidelines, you might consider asking this question on English.SE instead... –  Alex Feinman Sep 19 '13 at 15:32
@JohnM.Landsberg - Agreed, it's difficult to comment without seeing a typical writing sample. –  Neil Fein Sep 19 '13 at 18:45
@AlexFeinman - I think that this is a question that can exist on both sites. OP will get more technical advice there, more writer-friendly advice here. But it might get an even better answer over on English Language Learners. –  Neil Fein Sep 19 '13 at 18:48

3 Answers 3


The rules surrounding the use of the definite article in English are quite complex and confusing for many non-native speakers. For example, 'the' is never used before a person's name unless for particular clarification:

"Ron Howard's outside."
"The Ron Howard? The famous director?"
"Yep, that one."

Nevertheless, I hear many non-native speakers use it commonly before people's names. ("*Did you talk with the Steve yet?")

Note: I'm using the standard mechanism of marking incorrect or unusual usages with a star.

It doesn't matter in this case whether the writing is technical or informal, though it would be even rarer to use the emphatic 'the' from above in technical writing.

For other nouns, use of 'the' is so spotty as to be nearly idiomatic. Country names are a good example--for many years, English speakers referred to "The Ukraine", even though they didn't refer to (for example) "*The Russia." While this particular example has changed, many other examples still exist. Some are stylistic, with only minor variations in meaning and usage:

"The people elected him President in 1980."
"The people elected him the President of France in 1980."

Personal pronouns

The style for many years was to avoid the use of personal pronouns (I, we, you) in technical writing. This led to torturous constructions and overuse of the passive voice:

The results were originally published by one of the authors (Brown, 1977).

However, in the 90s and 00s, the style changed, and scientific articles started using 'we' or 'I':

I originally published these results in 1977 (Brown, 1977).

Some journals still refuse to adopt this style. In general, a more impersonal style is still preferred for most technical writing, because use of "I" makes it sound like the text is the author's opinion, rather than their presentation of facts.

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am I right to derive that one of the right ways to avoid overusing "the" and "personal pronoun" is to have a right mix of passive and active voices? –  user1734905 Sep 20 '13 at 2:00
Passive voice lets you avoid personal pronouns. Avoiding "the" is a completely separate matter. –  Alex Feinman Sep 20 '13 at 12:47
While we don't say "I went to the Russia" but simply "I went to Russia", we do refer to tsars as "The Tsar of all the Russias." I have no idea why, perhaps it has to do with how these phrases are translated from the original. –  Jay Sep 23 '13 at 21:14
@Jay No idea technically, but "the Russias" means to me that it's a more formal designation of something commonly agreed upon. Not just any Russias, but the Russias - the ones that everybody knows and agrees are Russias. –  Joe Sep 25 '13 at 1:03

Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker

I think these are two different questions. If you feel you use too many definite articles, that might mean your grammar is wrong. 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.

I also notice many native speakers writing "I" excessively. In informal settings, especially emails you write telling someone what work you did, frequent "I"s might be appropriate. However, I feel that they become more frequent because people do not use conjunctive words, and therefore the "I" often stands repetitively at the beginning of each sentence. Another problem I face in informal, but even formal settings, is the fact that English speakers seem to be little accustomed to longer sentence structures. That leads to many repetitions you do not observe in other languages, but are necessary to form proper sentences.

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I think you're quite spot-on with the conjunctives words being used to avoid repetitive pronouns. Still unsure about "the" though –  user1734905 Sep 20 '13 at 2:01
The way I was taught is that using I too many times draws attention away from what you're saying to you. It becomes look what I know or look what I did instead of just conveying the information and it gets boring very quickly. Once it's known who the actor is in the topic, it doesn't need to be repeated unless it clarifies something. –  Joe Sep 25 '13 at 1:08

It is very common advice to say that you should avoid repeating a word. Writers are often encouraged to seek out synonyms or alternate phrasings.

But this rule is nowhere near as strict for pronouns, conjunctions, articles, prepositions and other short, common words. You can use the word "the" five times in a sentence and it is likely that no one will notice. But if you used the word "altercation" five times in one sentence, it would leap out at the reader.

As several others have said, perhaps you could give us an example of writing that you fear overuses these words, so the discussion could be more concrete.

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