What is the difference between "the + singular countable noun" and "zero article + plural countable noun" when we make generalisations about classes of things.

1 Answer 1


"The singular countable noun" for generalisations was only, I think, ever used for animals and humans (eg "The lion is a carnivore").

Its use for animals is now old fashioned. Its use for humans is not only old fashioned, but often regarded today as offensive.

Edit: Jason has pointed out that this is not used exclusively for animals and humans (though I think it was always mostly used that way). I still maintain that it is old fashioned.

  • 1
    The sea is blue, and so is the sky. The Scotsman is a fine figure of a man (my pal Hamish says that is not offensive). Sep 14, 2019 at 14:38
  • Sea and sky are uncountable in that context, so those are not counterexamples. As for humans: I said often. Whether or not it is regarded as offensive depends partly on whether the description is favourable or not, but also on the degree of privilege customarily associated with the group being described, and who is doing the describing. If you substitute many other national or ethnic designations for Scotsman, the result may be regarded as at least patronising.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 14, 2019 at 15:07
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    The car is a useful form of transportation. That's just as countable (or not) as the lion, and it's an inanimate object. So, it's still not at all clear what you're saying. Sep 16, 2019 at 5:00
  • @JasonBassford: true. Edited.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 16, 2019 at 10:40
  • @ColinFine When you say "Its use for humans is regarded as offensive", I assume you mean things like "The Chinaman is industrious", not "The driver of a car must take care."
    – stangdon
    Jul 2, 2021 at 18:52

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