"Let the children smoke" - Why is the definite article used here?

It’s the title of this video: Let the children smoke - YouTube

He’s talking about children in general, not about any specific children, so what is the purpose of “the” here?

Does it refer to “your/our” children, namely “the” children around you/us?

In my view, it is incorrectly used in this example for the reasons you mentioned (it should be ‘Let children smoke’). However, there are other examples where ‘the’ is used before children when talking about children in general, such as ‘Think of the children’ or ‘I’m doing it for the children’. So I think the YouTuber wrongly carried over that usage into his example.

I wouldn’t be too quick to say that it’s incorrect since he is a native speaker. True, it might just be a one-off peculiarity in his idiolect, but if it is actually used like that in his dialect of British English then it must, by definition, be correct English. It would be interesting to hear from native speakers of British English whether they consider it correct usage.

Sure, it may be correct, but native speakers can still make mistakes in their own language, and as a native speaker of a different form of English, I still think it’s more likely to be incorrect. But yes, it would be good if a British person could weigh in on the subject.

In the phrase “Let the children smoke” the definite article doesn’t need to be included. In this case, it’s the writer’s choice. It’s fine to use it in this case. It’s a video title and it gets your attention. You think the video is talking about some specific case and not a general plea. When something is specific, it’s probably more emotional, wouldn’t you say? We are drawn to it.

Consider these sentences:
Let the music play.
Let the people vote.
Let the kids have a dog.
Let the workers have an extra day off.
Let the children smoke.
Let the vegetarians eat over there.
Let the women breastfeed in public.

In this first list, a native speaker is immediately interested in each of these cases. We want to know more about the specifics. It sounds like the beginning of a story.

Which people are not allowed to vote? Which group of workers might get another day off? What family is depriving their children of a dog? What kind of music is not allowed right now? Why are the vegetarians eating separately? What about these women breastfeeding?

Now consider these:
Let people vote.
Let kids have dogs.
Let workers have more time off.
Let children smoke.
Let vegetarians eat over there.
Let women breastfeed in public.

In the second list, it sounds like a general plea. It sounds boring. It sounds like a political slogan or a position. Of course, “let children smoke” is sort of funny because it’s so wrong. So in this case, the phrase likely would have gotten people’s attention anyway. And the sentence about vegetarians is already so specific to vegetarians, maybe it doesn’t matter how it’s said. Women breastfeeding is also very specific and doesn’t matter how you say it, although the second way maybe sounds better. And I didn’t bother with the music sentence because it would sound unnatural.

Speaking of unnatural, “let” is kind of an awkward word in the beginning of a sentence. It’s not used that much in speaking in the USA, I think. When native speakers start sentences with the word “let”, here are some examples of usage:

Let me have my bag back.
Let me do it.
Let us eat in peace.
Let her do what she wants.
Let him have the car tonight.
Let Susie study art if she wants to.
Let the plumber fix the problem.
Let the dog outside.
Let it happen.
Let it be.
Let there be light.
Lemme alone.
Lemme come with.

I’m sure you can see this word “let” can have a connotation of allowing permission, or seeking permission, or it can be like a plea, or a prayer, or it can be almost an order. All native English speakers vaguely recall the biblical “Let there be light”, and so future sentences starting with the word “let” are possibly following this archaic example. The point is, sometimes what follows this particular word “let” might work or not work despite what rules are taught. And “let” is not that common in the beginning of a sentence anyway.

When we start the sentence with “let’s”, this is not the same as “let”:
Let’s go!
Let’s study.
Let’s not be too hasty.
Let’s dance.
Let’s pay our bills on time.
Let’s order pizza.
Let’s all remember to brush our teeth.
Let’s not go there.
Let’s drive all night.
Let’s stay home.
Let’s pay the workers more.

I won’t bore you with more examples, but can you sense this is different? The speaker is suggesting getting started. It’s about to happen. There is very little of the feel of an order or a plea. It doesn’t seem political. It’s more informal. It sounds fun or cheerful or pleasant, even when I’m reminding you to brush your teeth or pay taxes.

You can forget about most of what I wrote and come to this. That sentence is from a youtube video, which many people view as comedy, or entertainment. One of the ways to be entertaining is to play with words and play with our expectations and play with what’s proper. It catches our attention and sounds funny.

And finally, the point of youtube is to get clicks, not teach english. Really they guy could put any title up there he wants.

Gosh, I rambled, maybe I’ll delete.


He kinda is talking about a specific group of children: the children (of this nation). The children (for whom this country makes laws).

It’s like saying, “Let the people decide” (about a certain proposed law or change in law by the government or rulers of the country). “Let the people (of this country) decide” instead of “let people (in the world in general) decide.”

Let the children (of this great nation) smoke.

It has little or nothing to do with idiolect or dialect or being British or Australian or American or Canadian or what-have-you, by the way.

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Seems to be more a stylistic choice to add emphasis.