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All the grammar books that I have consulted state quite clearly that the definite article can be used in generic reference with singular count nouns, as in the following examples:

The elephant is a clever animal

The radio was invented in Italy

I haven't been able to find any information as to how common this use actually is though, so now I'm wondering whether this applies generally, to any countable noun in the singular, or if there are any limitations to this rule. To me, it sounds odd saying things like

?The woman has been marginalised throughout history

?The human began walking upright 6 million years ago

I would much rather use the indefinite plural form in these examples. Is this intuition (that the + singular count noun doesn't quite work in the latter two examples) correct, and, if so: why?

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    Interesting question! The is commonly used in generalisations about a species of animal, but not about human beings. I don't know why. Feb 4 at 17:37
  • @KateBunting Right; that's my intuition too, but, like you, I can't explain why.
    – Helen
    Feb 4 at 17:41
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    What @Kate said. I'm sure that for many nouns, most if not all native speakers would agree as to whether or not the singular can be preceded by a definite article. That's to say - can we use singular the X as an alternative to plural Xs or more explicitly singular any X [chosen at random from all Xs]. Doubtless there will be borderline cases which some people accept and some don't (The Englishman is king of his castle might be an example of such). I'm sure we'll get there, but for now I'm as intrigued as you guys when it comes to How do we define the "rule"? Feb 4 at 17:52
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    This from an ELU answer looks good... note that the generic use of the is actually very restricted, in that we only use it with a relatively small selection of nouns. But as the final (recent) comment there says, It's interesting that generic the can be used with species (the blue whale), higher orders (eg genera) (the oak) ... of animals, fungi, plants ... but not with 'man'. Where by implication, "interesting" = "inexplicable". Feb 4 at 18:05
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    A couple more that we can't say - The plant is a vital part of Earth's ecology. The fungus is an interesting life-form. They can only be expressed using either the plural, or with an indefinite article. Feb 4 at 18:10
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A notion representing a class of objects

If a group of objects is represented by one object of their class, this singular countable noun takes the definite article the. Its meaning is a notion representing a class of objects, not the only object or specific object. This function is called the generic function of the definite article. The definite article "the" in this function is used only with a singular noun, mostly with the names of animal species, plants, inventions, instruments, and some others. Ref Useful English


The woman has been marginalised throughout history?

I would suggest that Woman in this case is not per se a singular count noun its specialised as it can only refer to a singular. Where as Bear can be Bears and Elephants can be Elephants if there friends come round. A woman must become women or people if her mates drop in.

It is more common to see the plural form used in a case like this

Women have been marginalised throughout history?

But you are correct "The women" is not used and seem to have been relegated to use for television shows only. Why we use the plura form I have no idea maybe it a solidarity thing or maybe she just got tired marching through the millennia on her lonesome. I presume that when our language was formalised we did not, at that time, consider ourselves animals hence the missing "The"

The human began walking upright 6 million years ago

In this case the word choice is incorrect as much as I or anyone else wishes not to appear sexist. The correct choice should have been Man. Whilst it is quite acceptable to call either a bull or a cow an Elephant or a boar or a sow a Bear it. Unfortunately it no longer seems correct to call a woman a Man.

Man began walking upright 6 million years ago

But you are are correct we do not use The Man in this instance. Even if he considers himself a bit of an animal.


man noun (PEOPLE);the human race: C.E.D.

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