The Use of the Definite Article with Countable Nouns

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The Use of the Definite Article with Countable Nouns

§ 19.There are certain uses of the definite article which are to
be regarded as a matter of tradition:

1) We often find the definite article used by reason of lo-
cality, i.e. with reference to objects that surround the speaker (or
the people and things described by him). This usually refers to ob-
jects either indoors (e.g. the corner, the window, the table, the
door, the wall,
etc.) or outdoors (e.g. the stars, the street, the
trees, the flowers, the houses, the leaves, the birds, the bees,

e.g. As I came up our street, I saw my mother and my brother
waving from the window.

The late sun streamed across the kitchen, and a patch of light danced on the wall.
bee buzzed among the flowers.
trees swayed to and fro under the grey sky.
The gulls flew low over the barges.

The noonday heat had even stilled the songs of the birds.
It should be noted that this rule applies only to a limited num-
ber of nouns.

2) The definite article is used with nouns denoting objects that
are usually found in a particular place. It is taken for granted
that the object is to be found there. For example, we normally ex-
pect to find a subject and a predicate in a sentence. Therefore in
analysing the sentence The old man walked slowly we say: "The
old man
is the subject, walked is the predicate." But we say: "Old
is an attribute, slowly is an adverbial modifier of manner," as the
secondary parts are not found in every sentence.

When we speak about the cinema or the theatre we say: "I couldn't
find my seat and asked
the attendant to help me." In a cafe or a
restaurant we say: "Let's call the waiter." In a department store
we say: "Let's go to the men's clothing department" At home we
may hear: "I'll put the kettle on and make you some tea." or "Can
I turn
the radio off? I want to read the paper."

Note. It should be noted that it is customary in English to use possessive pro-
nouns (and not the definite article) when speaking about one's relatives, parts of
the body, articles of clothing and other personal belongings.
e.g. His brother was wearing a sweater up to his neck and chestnut hair down to his


"Where is he?" Stephen asked, looking at his watch.
She put her hand into her bag and took out her handkerchief.
However, in certain idiomatic phrases the definite article is the norm.

e.g. He took her by the arm and led her out of the room.
He was wounded in the leg.
For more examples see "Pronouns", § 6.

The Generic Function of the Definite Article

§ 20. A singular countable noun with a definite article may
represent a whole class of objects, thus becoming a composite im-
age of that class (but not a typical representative). A noun in this
function is called a generic singular.

e.g. The violet is a lovely flower.
The cuckoo is a lazy bird.

To the philosopher, language may be an instrument of thought;
to the sociologist, a form of behaviour; to the psychologist'

a cloudy window through which he glimpses the workings
of the mind; to the engineer, a series of physical events;
to the linguist, a system of arbitrary signs.
The aeroplane has made the world a small place.

Note 1. It is also sometimes possible to use the indefinite article in similar cases.
e.g. A violet is a lovely flower.

This use of the indefinite article is not to be identified, however, with the ge-
neric function of the definite article. The indefinite article is used here in its nomi-
nating function, implying any representative of the class. Hence the use of the in-
definite article is not equivalent to that of the definite article when the noun is
used as a composite image of a whole class. For that reason the indefinite article is
not possible in the following sentences.

e.g. Now the horse has been replaced by the tractor.

"In this lecture I am going to speak about the article in English," said the professor.

In other cases, however, when any typical representative of a class but not a
composite image of that class is meant, only the indefinite article may be used.

e.g. A book makes a good present.

A passenger is allowed to take 20 kg of hand luggage free of charge.
A word or word-group may be emphasized (i.e. thrown into greater promi-
A flower is always a beautiful decoration.

Note 2. Note that a plural noun used in a generic sense has no article irrespec-
tive of whether it is parallel to a singular noun with the definite or indefinite article.

e.g. Violets are lovely flowers.

Aeroplanes have made the world a small place.
Now horses have been replaced by tractors.
Flowers are always a beautiful decoration.

Note 3. When the noun man is used in a generic sense, no article is found with it.
e.g. Surely he had suffered everything that man can endure.

The noun woman in a generic sense may be used with the definite article or
without any article.

e.g. He had always been interested in that mysterious being — the woman.
Woman is man's helpmate.

The generic article is always found with collective nouns de-
noting social groups or classes. The article serves to emphasize
the idea of collectivity, as in: the proletariat, the peasantry, the
bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, the nobility, the gentry, the clergy,
the intelligentsia, the public, the police.
(For concord of these
nouns with their predicate verbs see "Nouns", § 13.)

With other nouns, the use of the generic singular is restricted

in two ways:

1) Only a semantically limited group of nouns appear to be
used generically. We mainly find here names of animals, plants,
professions and occupations, the nouns man, woman and child,
collective nouns denoting social groups and, last but not least,
scientific terms.

Note. In particular, grammar terms may also be used generically.

e.g. The nounmay have different functions in the sentence.
The article
is a structural word specifying the noun.

2) Generic singulars are mainly characteristic of scientific and
literary prose where there is a need for generalization. That
means that there is a stylistic restriction on the use of generic

§ 21. The definite article is used with generic plurals but it is
found only when the idea of collectivity is definitely emphasized,
suggesting 'the whole body of, as in: a) the Russians, the Ger-
mans, the Italians, the Americans;
b) the peasants, the workers,
the Tories, the aristocrats, the Liberals, the catholics.
e.g. The Italianshave given the world some first-class film pro-
The Torieswill not lift a finger to help the workers.

As we see from the above examples, this use of the generic
definite article is found with names of nationalities, representa-
tives of political parties, classes, social groups and also religious
beliefs. Note, however, that there is no article when not the whole
body of but separate, individual representatives are meant.

e.g. Italiansare often good singers.

Charles knew that his wife wrote articles for the paper and
had friends among left-wing people and liberals.

It should be stressed that the use of generic plurals is still
more lexically restricted than that of generic singulars as it is
found with a more limited number of semantic groups of nouns.
Yet it is not restricted stylistically.

Note. The noun people is used with the definite article when the idea of collec
tivity is emphasized.

e.g. (All) the peoplein the village liked the new doctor.

But if the idea of collectivity is not uppermost in the mind of the speaker,
there is no article at all.

e.g. She was speaking with absolute certainty: "(All) Peopleare selfish."


22. The same generic use of the definite article is found with
substantivized adjectives (e.g. the blind, the poor, the rich, the
young, the old,
etc.). This is also the case with some adjectives de-
noting names of nationalities (e.g. the British, the French, the Chi-
nese, the Japanese,
etc.). On the whole it should be noted that the
number of adjectives thus substantivized is very limited (see also
"Adjectives", § 6).

e.g. The Britishare a nation of newspaper readers.

The richget richer and the poorget poorer.
It is necessary to point out here that when not the whole body
but separate, individual representatives are meant, a noun should
be added.

Cf. The youngare often intolerant.

Ah, well! Young men can't help making fools of them-
selves," he said amiably.
The oldare often helpless.
The old womanwas helpless.
Note. Adjectives followed by ones may have generic force and then they are
used with the definite article.
e.g. "It isn't the prettyones that become good wives and mothers," said Jack.
"The littleones always know a good man from a bad one," said the old woman.
The Use of Articles with Countable Nouns
in Some Syntactic Patterns
§ 23. In some syntactic patterns we observe certain pecu-
liarities in the use of articles. This refers, in the first place, to
the use of articles with nouns in the function of predicative or ap-

1) As a rule, nouns used predicatively or in apposition take
the indefinite article. It is used here in its nominating function in

accordance with the general rule. It stands to reason that nouns

in the plural have no article, e.g.

Predicative: "I'ma socialist,of course," he said.

All my friends were students.
"I'm sure you know Alfred Hard, a professorat

London University," she remarked.

My friends, all studentsthen, often discussed the

Nouns used predicatively or in apposition may have descriptive

attributes, e.g.

Predicative: Hewas an extremely boring fellow.

Apposition: Hart, an uneasy nervous man,made a few sarcastic


2) The definite article, in accordance with its individualizing
function, serves to show that the speaker or writer is referring to
a definite person or object. As a rule, the noun in this case has a
limiting attribute, e.g.

Predicative:Philip had been the hero of his childhood.
Then Jack, the most impudent person there,in-
terrupted me.

In addition to this rule it should be mentioned that a noun in
apposition is also used with the definite article when the speaker
takes it for granted that the hearer knows the person in question,
e.g. "What is it, Maty?" "It's Mr Hooker, the newspaper editor,

he wants to see you."
As the invited entered the house they were greeted by Elsie,

the maid.
Erich Maria Remarque, the German-born anti-war writer,

said that his novels were successful because in them he told
"about a generation which had been destroyed by war in
spite of the fact that it escaped death."

3) Nouns used predicatively or in apposition may have no arti-
cle. This is found in the following cases:

a) when they denote a position (rank, state, post or occupation)
which is unique. Note that the noun in this case usually has an of
phrase attribute, e.g.
Predicative:Mike Slattery was chairman of the Republican

County committee.


Apposition:W. Carl Johnson, Superintendent of the School,re-
ceived me in his office.
Occasionally the definite article is also used in such cases, e.g.
Predicative: Ithink we all realize that Mr Passant has been the
leader of our group.
Apposition: So one day Itook the opportunity to talk to Mr

Руке, the assistant director of the firm.

b) when they denote a relationship and stress is laid on the social
position of the person expressed by the subject (or the head-noun).
The noun is usually modified by an of-phrase in this case, e.g.
Predicative: Mrs Nelson was wife of the manager of the firm.

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