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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
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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
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@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

6 Answers 6

The

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

"qualifier1 qualifier2 noun" is usually okay. "qualifier1 qualifier2 qualifier3 noun" is usually not okay

Since it lays emphasis, "the" itself becomes a qualifier. Therefore, "the current policy" is okay, and "the current US policy" (or, worse still, "the current US military policy") is not. In that vein, "the US domestic market" is better stated as "US domestic market". Equally debatable but more acceptable from my standpoint is "the Mozilla website" : please note that the noun is not 'website', but simply 'site' : 'web' has been embedded in the noun as a permanent qualifier.

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Your rule is helpful as a general guideline, but it's not hard-and-fast. For example, no native English speaker would say, "We're targeting this product to US domestic market." –  dmm 2 days ago

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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I am not sure I understand. Could you please specify what you mean by "the" used ahead of pronouns/conjunctions/prepositions ? As far as I can readily think of, "the" is only used in situations that match : the [adjective] "noun", [adjective] being optional. In some situations, an adverb can take the place of the adjective, in which case the noun itself is usually silent : "the deeply guilty" implies "the deeply guilty people", making "deeply guilty" the adjective.

I agree with you entirely that you might use "the" 5 times in a sentence without breaking any grammatical rule, or the natural sound of the sentence. But then, even a single instance can be avoidable : "we sell the tools for fishing" sounds better to me as "we sell tools for fishing", unless one is implying an even more specialized subset within "tools for fishing".

I came across a situation where using "the" actually reduces emphasis. Taking Expedia as a group that contains many sister concerns :

Expedia website -> www.expedia.com; The Expedia website -> www.expedia.com, or website of any sister concern

But such usage is mostly a matter of personal inclination. For general usage, I think the best way is to simply test for elementary grammatical rules, and then check : does it sound okay without "the" in front ? If yes, drop it.

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Overusing I is common in English writing.

You can write in passive voice, or rewrite to vary where 'I' appears in your sentences, so that they don't all start with I.

This cure can be worse than the disease. Passive voice makes dull (technical) reading.

You can combine multiple such sentences into one:

I went to the store. I bought a cake. I ate it.

becomes: I went to the store, bought a cake, and ate it.

Telegraph style. You can omit 'I' and 'the', 'a' in Resume/CV, newspaper headline writing, texting, and informal email:

Went to store. Bought cake. Ate it.

but not in regular communication.

You can transfer some statements to the background:

At the store, I bought a cake.

or

I bought a cake at the store.

since if you are at the store, it's because you went there.

When overusing the's, you'll likely need to restructure your sentences to reduce them. Try out different forms, such as replacing "X of Y" with "Y's X" or "Y X", or vice versa, using alternate equivalent phrases.

Pick the most descriptive and precise words to avoid have to add additional clauses (often including "the") to make your meaning more specific.

Replace common adverbial phrases containing 'the' ('in terms of the semantics' => 'semantically') with single word adverbs, etc.

Take care when reducing thes. Missing the in certain places, even when semantically unnecessary, is a red flag that it wasn't written by a native speaker.

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