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I am confused with the following sentence in a English learning book,

Society doesn't pay enough to old people.

Why there is no article before the word "Society"? I found in a dictionary that this word can be used as a countable noun or an uncountable noun. So, my guess is that it should be regarded as an uncountable noun here. Can someone verify this? And if so, why it is treated as uncountable in this case? Could the sentence be like,

The society doesn't pay enough to old people.

Societies don't pay enough to old people.

Is there any difference between this three sentence? And how should I know when a word is countable or uncountable?

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We often don't use articles for institutions or phenomena, like: School is challenging. Prison is a confusing place. Government is too expensive. – stangdon Mar 19 at 12:30
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Society without an article is the abstract concept of society:

Society as a whole needs to take responsibility for these problems

Society with an article refers to a particular organization

I keep my money in a building society

I am a member of the amateur dramatic society

Something is generally countable except for

  • abstract concepts like peace and fairness
  • activities like swimming
  • substances that are infinitely divisible (water, sugar, leather, soap cheese, etc)

Note that you can still use a plural for something that is uncountable, to indicate there are multiple types of it:

I tried several cheeses at the food fair (meaning several types of cheese)

Going back to your examples,

Society doesn't pay enough to old people.

This is society as an abstract concept.

The society doesn't pay enough to old people.

This would be a particular organization, for example a charity that helps old people.

Societies don't pay enough to old people

This could be either referring to several different organizations (for example charities) or different kinds of abstract society, for example in different countries.

I think that the first example has the intended meaning and the other two, while grammatically correct, probably do not have the intended meaning.

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"A society" would mean "any society in a set of societies"

"The society" would mean "a particular society in a set of societies".

But neither of those meanings is what the author intends.

The implication of the author's statement is that there is only one society (or only one society about which he and the listener(s)/reader(s) need to concern themselves).

Sometimes we lose sight of certain facts, like the fact that there are other societies on the planet, and thus we become parochial in outlook.

What he should have said is

Our society does not pay enough to old people.

But those who do understand that there are multiple societies, also understand that "our society" was indeed his meaning, or at least "the society of which we are members."

The choice of article reveals the speaker's point-of-view.

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