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Take a few examples of generic noun phrases:

A) Tigers are big.
B) A tiger is big.
C) The tiger is big.

All the above three represent a group of Tigers as a whole or all tigers in general.

Today I was looking up the definition of 'definite article' and it reads like this:

We use the definite article in front of a noun when we believe the readers knows exactly what we are referring to.

Since this definition is a general one and the nouns used are generic nouns so is there any difference in the sentences given below ?

  1. We use the definite article in front of a noun when we believe 'readers' know exactly what we are referring to.
  2. We use the definite article in front of a noun when we believe the 'reader' knows exactly what we are referring to.
  3. We use the definite article in front of a noun when we believe 'a reader' knows exactly what we are referring to.
  4. We use the definite article in front of 'nouns' when we believe 'the reader' knows exactly what we are referring to.

Do all mean the same or they mean differently ?

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We can refer to a species in several ways in English:

A) Tigers are big.plural, all tigers
B) A tiger is big.singular indefinite as exemplary member-at-random of the class
C) The tiger is big.singular definite as class exemplar per se

  • +1 -- I upvoted this answer because it's the most succinct one at the moment. (@Brock if this answer is too concise, you might find this page useful: books.google.com/books?id=GTgRCjOIKyYC&pg=PA21.) I wish I could give more than one vote to each answer (so I could give this one two votes and other answers one vote each). – Damkerng T. Apr 13 '17 at 23:49
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Here's the tricky bit about all this:

If are writing about a tiger that shows up on your lawn, in the second occurrence of the word in your text, that "a tiger" becomes "the tiger". When this is taught in English, this aspect is often overlooked.

"Yesterday, a tiger showed up on my lawn. The tiger was very bold and just marched across the grass".

Apples are good for you. [general statement] This means the same as: The apple is good for you. [general statement]

That said, not every USE of "the apple" will be a general statement.

An apple a day is good for you. [general statement about eating an apple a day]

"Someone put an apple on the dinner table and it was all shiny and wet. The apple had not been there earlier in the day."

See? You switch from AN apple to THE apple.

BUT, one can also write an essay on "the apple" as a general proposition. That would be the same as writing an essay about "apples" as a general proposition.

The title of the essay could be:

The Infinite Goodness of the Apple [a category of fruit]

And it would have the same meaning if written like this

The Infinite Goodness of Apples

[the plural in English also indicates a category in this type of context]

  • Sentences like 'An apple a day is good for you.' , 'A whale is a marine animal' , 'A computer is a machine' are general sentences which means that it applies to all apples, all whales and all computers in general. Till here I'm sure but what if i say the definition of something, in that case will the nouns used be generic nouns - for ex 'We use the definite article in front of a noun when we believe the readers knows exactly what we are referring to'. This is a sentence which is or will always be true for definite articles, so here the nouns used ie 'nouns', 'readers' are generic nouns or not? – Brock Apr 14 '17 at 5:15
  • I cannot understand what you are trying to say, sorry. But I think you mean this: A computer is a machine=Computers are machines=The computer is a machine. Yes, those all have the same meaning. But be careful: The difference between A and the plural noun do not always mean the same thing. You repeat to me "we use the definite article in front of a noun when we believe etc" is better explained by my example of switching from A to THE in a text. Did you read that? Above? – Lambie Apr 14 '17 at 13:07
  • Plz throw some light on this question too ell.stackexchange.com/questions/126570/… – Brock Apr 14 '17 at 13:27
  • A "real plural" is one based on the rest of the sentence's context. Tigers are nice. A tiger is nice. Same thing. Tigers in that zoo are sweet. A tiger in that zoo is sweet. Not the same thing. – Lambie May 27 '18 at 17:09
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Words (specifically words functioning as nouns) can be labels or tags for things, in addition to a label or tag for an entire type of things, or the abstract concept of a thing.

Articles help indicate "which" instance of a thing a word functioning as a noun is supposed to "label."

So the type of article (definite/indefinite) and whether or not it is present does affect this and can alter the implications of the sentence, which can lead to differences in interpretation.

In the case of reader above though, all of them won't make a difference, and it's mostly because of the context.

We use the definite article in front of a noun when we believe 'readers' know exactly what we are referring to.

Author is grouping everyone who reads his book into "readers" and expecting you to assume you are in that group.

We use the definite article in front of a noun when we believe the 'reader' knows exactly what we are referring to.

The can point a noun-word to an instance previously mentioned in conversation, or something that is a shared observation or experience by both parties. "The reader" may not have been previously mentioned but the writer is expecting you to consider yourself as part of the shared experience of his/her text, and if the tone of the text is conversational, it can be the basis for such a context.

We use the definite article in front of a noun when we believe 'a reader' knows exactly what we are referring to.

The author is assuming more than one person is actually in reality reading his/her text, and using the indefinite article to say that something applies for any single instance in this group.

  • And what about the 4) sentence in which 'nouns' is used instead of 'a noun' ? – Brock Apr 14 '17 at 5:05

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