“In literature” vs. “in the literature” in English

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

When people write an essay or a scientific paper, they often say that it is possible to “find something in the literature”. But why “the literature”? “Literature” is an uncountable noun, so couldn’t you say simply “in literature”?

The problem is that “literature” has several different meanings. When we speak about literature itself, there is no need to use an article, as in the following quotation by Tom Baker:

It’s funny, in literature no one ever goes to the lavatory.

There is no reason to use “the” here, just like you wouldn’t say “the water consists of hydrogen and oxygen” when speaking about water in general. However, “literature” also has a different meaning. When it refers to a specific collection of books, papers, etc., related to a given subject, it is often used as a countable noun, and you should say “the literature”, referring to the literature of the given field. For example, a physicist could write:

We can find many applications of quantum entanglement in the literature.

(It is not common to discuss quantum entanglement in literature in general.) In this sense, “literature” may also be used with the indefinite article (a, an), usually when it is combined with an adjective, e.g.

There is an extensive literature on cancer treatment.

Using the plural “literatures” is rather rare (it is not even listed in most dictionaries), but it possible. For example, the following quotation comes from the American Journal of Public Health:

These pop narratives had echoes in the scholarly literatures of sociology, anthropology, history, public health, and national security policy.

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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