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How much is a plane ticket from London to Paris? The answer is only a web search away, and more and more Europeans are being enticed by cheap prices to take short flights for holidays, family visits or business. It's fast enough for a weekend trip and can cost much less than the train.

Could someone explain why "the" is used in the above sentence?
Would it sound weird if I use "trains" instead of "the train?" Considering it is almost the first sentence in an essay, talking about a general idea about the means of transportation, I thought "trains" (the plural form without articles) would be more appropriate.

Even other than this sentence, I've noticed that "the" is often used before a means of transport (ex. the bus. the train, the plane etc) instead of "a" or plural forms with no articles, in situations where I think the writer is just talking about a general idea, or facts about the means of transportation, not referring to a particular transport. Is it something idiomatic? or is it just I haven't fully grasped how the articles are used in those contexts?

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    Yes, it would sound weird if you said it can cost much less than trains. What is it in this sentence? It could be taking the plane or just the plane, but not planes. If you said planes can cost much less than trains you would be talking about the cost of the plane/train itself, not the cost of a ticket. a train is possible but still sounds a bit off unless you fill it out to taking a train. the train tells us you are talking about a scheduled train service, so the cost can only be the cost of a ticket - possibly for that reason, you don't need taking if you use the. – user96060 Jun 3 at 12:50
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Indeed "the train" is often used for "trains as a general concept" as is "the bus" and "the plane". So is "the road".

It can cost much less than the train.

could be understood as short for

It can cost much less than taking the train.

but this is not true for some of the other cases where a definite article is used with a means of transportation, such as:

  • The railroad served to unify the country " the automobile drastically changed the pattern of dating and romance.

In those cases the meaning is that of the technology in general. In those cases 'Railroads" or 'Automobiles" could be used instead, but with a subtle change in meaning. When used with "the" a sort of Platonic ideal of the technology is invoked.

On further thought, this same form can be sued with other technologies considered as single iconic "things":

  • The computer destroyed the early and mid-twentieth century institution of the secretarial pool.
  • The printing press made possible widespread literacy.
  • The hoarse-collar made slavery uneconomic.
  • The stirrup gave a cavalryman a vast advantage over a spear-man.
  • The telephone changed the nature of business life.
  • Thank you for your explanation! In the example sentences you gave above about when definite articles are used to refer to a platonic ideal of the technology, would it sound weird or would it change the meaning of the sentences drastically if the plural forms without articles are used instead of "the"? – Jnn Jun 4 at 9:38
  • @Jnn On the forms I gave with different technologies at the start of a sentence, one could substitute plurals without an article with no problem. In the earlier "It costs less to take the train" the use of 'trains" without an article would sound odd, in my view. – David Siegel Jun 4 at 13:15

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