Police or the police?

 

Q:

I learned that "police" is always used with "the," but I sometimes see sentences in which "the" isn't used.

Can I use "police" alone in these sentences?

1.

[Police] warned citizens to escape from the contaminated areas.

2.

The couple waited for [police] to arrive and told them what had happened.

3.

He urged his son to surrender to [police].

4.

[Police] is on/at his heels.

5.

[Armed police] were surrounding the escaped prisoner.

6. [Swiss police] said it appeared to be an accident.
7. [Local police] want him.

 

If so, is it the case with military, clergy, aristocracy, nobility, gentry, and peasantry and so on?

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Posted 04 September 2002

A:

The rule about using the with police is partly, but only partly, correct. True, if one is referring to this well-known institution of society, one says the police, as in

The safe has been broken into! Call the police immediately!

or

I canít understand why the police donít patrol our neighborhood more often.

Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Longman, 1985, Section 5.29), would probably classify this use of the + police along with singular items like the Prime Minister, and plural examples like the airlines and the masses, as being part of the "larger situation (general knowledge)" in which members of the speech community know the identity of the noun being talked about. That is, if someone refers to the police or the government, no one needs to ask "Which police?" or "Which government?" because the signals shared knowledge.

In other cases, however, the plural form "police" refers to an unspecified number of (flesh-and-blood) members of the police force, as in your sentences 1, 5, and 6:

1.

[Police] warned citizens to escape from the contaminated areas.

5.

[Armed police] were surrounding the escaped prisoner.

6.

[Swiss police] said it appeared to be an accident.



The same could be said of the next examples, although these nouns could very well be used with the as well:

2.

The couple waited for [police] to arrive and told them what had happened.

3.

He urged his son to surrender to [police].

4.

[Police] [are] on/at his heels.

7.

[Local police] want him.



Here is the difference, as I see it: When the is used, the noun police is seen as an institution. In contrast, when no (zero) article is used, the noun refers to (an unspecified number of) actual members of the police force in an actual situation.

Zero article usage with police is very common to, though not restricted to, journalistic style, very often found in news reporting. In this respect it is no different from the use of other plural nouns with zero article. Compare:

Researchers at the other facility tested negative for the virus.

Investigators have found that people and animals harbor immune cells that?/p>

Reporters were told that they could ask no more questions.

This usage resembles the zero article to signal generics, but it is not a generic usage. (It also gets very little or no coverage in the grammar references with which I am familiar!)

Now for the second query. With nouns such as military, clergy, aristocracy, nobility, gentry, peasantry (as well as elite, bourgeoisie, church, intelligentsia, public, laity, press, rank and file) the singular form with the is the norm (Quirk et al., Section 5.108).

Marilyn Martin


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