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The Chinese invented the paper

The Chinese invented paper

I can't decide which article we get before paper — zero article or the.

Are we talking about paper in general (so zero article is used before it) or is the definite article the used?

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When speaking of materials in general— as opposed to types or specific sets of them— the names of substances are usually mass nouns and uncountable, and take the zero article. Therefore, the Chinese invented paper is the accepted form.

Egypt exports salt.

I spilled salt on the counter.

In the above, we are speaking in general of a substance (salt), and therefore there is no article.

There are situations where a noun that is usually uncountable does take the article, however.

We bought supplies for the blizzard. We took the chocolate into the house, but the salt is still in the car.

In the above we are referring to a specific set of salt— the salt which we purchased— rather than speaking of salt in general. Therefore, the article is appropriate here. To write but salt is still in the car reads as something of a non-sequitur.

Additionally, we can pluralize some normally uncountable nouns when referring to types or examples of them:

The recipe calls for three salts. The required salts are table salt and sea salt. An optional salt is kala namak.

There is ample discussion here and on EL&U about peoples, sciences, fishes, monies, and so on.

To a native speaker, the Chinese invented the paper looks like a typo, as if paper is a modifier missing its antecedent: The paper airplane? The paper clip? The paper cut?

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    As a side note, I'd add that "paper" is often used as a short form of "newspaper". So I read "the Chinese invented the paper" as "the Chinese invented the newspaper". "Newspaper" is a countable noun and so takes an article. – Jay Oct 31 '13 at 17:23

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