This question is related to the form of a noun, like whether to add an article or not in some sort of contexts.

Which noun form is natural and correct below?

I prefer train/a train/trains/the train to other methods.

I prefer pencil/a pencil/pencils/the pencil as a tool to write with.

To a non-native English speaker like me, when to choose a right noun form in expressions like above, they are confusing too much.

In my thought, as the noun should represent one kind among other kinds of things, adding the definite article at front feels reasonable, but on another hand, as the noun should represent all of many of one kind, a pencil or pencils feels right.

But as I intuitively and simply approach it, just "pencil" looks natural.

What is right here?

Thank you. :)

1 Answer 1


There are minor differences in meaning:

I prefer trains / I prefer pencils

The plural suggests you like trains in general. This is a good solution to your question as stated.

I prefer the train / (?) I prefer the pencil

In the first case "the train" probably refers to "the train system" (in comparison to the road system). For pencils it would refer to a specific pencil (in comparison to a specific pen). You could therefore use "the train" in your example, but probably not "the pencil"

(?) I prefer a train / (?) I prefer a pencil.

Grammatically correct, but a little odd. Probably acceptable if you are talking about a single, unspecified, pencil in a particular situation: "I prefer a pencil for art, but a pen for writing"

(?) I prefer train / (?) I prefer pencil

Both nouns are normally countable so these forms are odd. The latter could be used of "artwork drawn in pencil" and used in comparison to paint "I prefer pencil to paint" This is not the same as your example.

  • Really? I thought the answer is "I prefer train", e.g., "I prefer pen over pencil", not so?
    – xpt
    Commented Nov 12, 2016 at 14:14
  • @xpt not if you are talking about the tool, which is countable. I prefer pen over pencil is ok if you are using "pen" to mean "marks left by a pen" which is uncountable. wiktionary sense 3. "Train" is normally countable; I prefer train seems odd.
    – James K
    Commented Nov 12, 2016 at 14:29
  • Thank you, James K for the kind answer. I have been studying your answer. It is so helpful. Have a nice day! Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 11:12

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