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I've come across the following definition of plectrum in the Oxford Dictionary of English, which can be found at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/plectrum:

A thin flat piece of plastic, tortoiseshell, or other slightly flexible material held by or worn on the fingers and used to pluck the strings of a musical instrument such as a guitar.

This isn't an isolated use of the definite article with parts of the human body in this context. Other examples include definitions of shoe,

A covering for the foot, typically made of leather, having a sturdy sole and not reaching above the ankle.

thimble, hat, and so on.


What's the reason behind the use of the definite article in worn on the fingers, covering for the foot, and so on?

From what I know, the definite article is used when the reader is expected to know and recognize its referent – but I don't know what or whose fingers the definition makes reference to; the fingers don't seem unique or well-known, and neither they nor their possessor (the person or very adroit animal) is mentioned or implied – something that would otherwise help infer their existence. The same goes for the foot, etc.

Body parts are an example of something usually inalienable (courtesy of snailplane), the fact which might be of help when answering this question.

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    English for the most part doesn't distinguish alienable vs inalienable possession, so that point isn't really relevant. – eques Aug 8 '17 at 20:37
  • @eques I know, but so far that's the only common denominator for these words, unless you count body parts as some special category. – userr2684291 Aug 8 '17 at 20:42
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    but as you said there is no specified possessor (which isn't in any case the criteria for definite vs indefinite article use). Some article uses are more "customary" – eques Aug 8 '17 at 20:50
  • @eques It's not a necessary criterion, but it can be a sufficient one. – userr2684291 Aug 8 '17 at 20:59
  • +1. This is an awesome question. If I could, I would give a bonus for this question. – Jasper Aug 8 '17 at 22:47
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The definite article is sometimes used to indicate that the noun refers to a type rather than to a specific person or thing. For example:

The beginning writer faces many frustrations.

Unless there is a character called "the beginning writer" in the context, this is a generalization about the problems people who decide to become writers face. It does not refer to any specific person.

In contrast "A beginning writer faces many frustrations." is probably about a specific writer. We might find this phrase in the summary of the plot of a film.

Sentences such as this will sound odd to the English speaker:

Electric lights, telegraphs, and phonographs are great 19th century inventions.

The electric light in my garage is not an invention. The electric light (the technology) is. Instead we would say:

The electric light, the telegraph, and the phonograph are great 19th century inventions.

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As described here, it is idiomatic to use the zero article in some possessive phrases which refer to a thing as representative of sub-class within a class:

  • this type of guitar
  • that make of car
  • what sort of plectrum

It is also idiomatic to use the definite article with the singular or plural noun when that noun refers to a thing as representative of an entire class of things.

Examples abound:

  • The capo d'astro is affixed to the neck of the guitar.
  • The computer has changed our world.
  • The Dodo is an extinct pigeon-like bird.
  • An example of the order Rosales is the rose.
  • This pathogen infects the rose tree through the cut surface of the graft.1
  • A shoe is a covering for the foot.
  • The unicorn is a mythical beast.
  • Multiple plectra plectrums are worn on the fingers.
  • "The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem..."

Note that this is true of all nouns, not just those which refer to parts of the body.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet LIV
1GEMES-ROSES - Disease and pest control

  • I can't find any other definitions that use the definite generic in that manner in that dictionary; it seems that such usage is confined to body parts (and maybe musical instruments, but they're a science for themselves and I won't go into that). Further, the definite generic construction isn't commonly used with "normal" plural countable nouns (see Quirk et al. p.283: they list nationalities, groups of people (e.g., the blind), and "in scientific descriptions [...] like the rodents (referring to the whole order Rodentia)") . – userr2684291 Aug 8 '17 at 22:51
  • @userr2684291 In "The computer has changed our world", there is neither body part nor musical instrument, and surely The late, lamented Great Auk fails to satisfy those criteria as well! This is a well-known and widely explained usage of the def. article, see e.g.. here. I think Lawler will agree, if he happens to read this. He's around. As he says in that article: "It's not that the articles the or a have special meaning". – P. E. Dant Aug 8 '17 at 22:59
  • I'm pretty sure this is used constantly in those Attenborough BBC nature shows. – Catija Aug 8 '17 at 23:42
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    I think that's regional. I'd say "turn the baby over". When they're saying "turn Baby over" I'm pretty sure they're using it as a name, not as a descriptor. – Catija Aug 8 '17 at 23:55
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    The great auk is much more like a penguin than a pigeon! But, hey, this isn't Biology.SE. :-) – David Richerby Aug 9 '17 at 10:27
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The dictionary is combining two definitions into one:

... held by or worn on the fingers

When a single plectrum is used, it is normally held not worn. When multiple plectrums are used, they are "worn on the fingers".

A single plectrum can be worn on a finger.

Several can be worn on the fingers.

Which fingers?

Why, the ones not on the foot but on the hand.

Which hand? The hand that members of the species homo sapiens tend to have two of.

  • Which members? The members who... – P. E. Dant Aug 8 '17 at 22:11
  • Which members? All members. (no article) – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 8 '17 at 22:12
  • hrm. I have no problem with "Which members? Why, all the members." – P. E. Dant Aug 8 '17 at 22:14
  • You can say "all the members" if you wish, but I'd say "all members". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 8 '17 at 22:18

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