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I read an article about making General Statements

It says, when you use nouns to make general statements, there are two patterns that have the same meaning:

  1. Use the + singular noun
  2. Use a plural or non-count noun with no article.

For example:

  1. The computer has brought about huge changes in education.

  2. Computers have brought about huge changes in education.

==> These sentences have the same meaning and refer to a general thing.

But it seems that there are several words, and in several contexts, we can use both forms to make a general statement.

For example:

  1. The meal should contain various types of nutrition.(Using definite article the + singular noun)

  2. Meals should contain various types of nutrition.(Using plural noun)

With the word "meal" and that context, I can't use "the+singular (meal)".

So could you please tell me when I can use the form "the + singular noun", when I can't when making a general statement?

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    I don't think it's possible to formulate a rule for this. In (3), you could use a meal meaning any meal, but the definite article sounds wrong. I can't explain why. Sep 10, 2022 at 16:02
  • Thank you for your help. It seems that most native speakers can not explain for this kind of situation. It is so hard for foreign learners to decide when to use "the+singular", when not because there is no rule here :(
    – LE HANH
    Sep 10, 2022 at 16:09
  • @LEHANH It's "cannot". Oct 19, 2023 at 7:28

1 Answer 1

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When we use [ "the" + noun ] to refer to something in general, it means there's an understood general concept of that thing. Individual devices ("the computer") and life forms ("the whale") are understood to have general concepts. For things where we cannot use [ "the" + noun ], it means there isn't a general concept of that thing ("the meal").

So the rule comes down to the individual word level, where some words are considered to have general concepts and others not. I'm not sure if words in that category are universal to all humans, or whether it's an arbitrary cultural delineation, including based on individual languages, but outside of words that fit in a larger category, like device or life form, you just have to know.

In fact, you've chosen an interesting example because "the meal" can represent a general concept when it refers to the ritual of eating at certain points in the day, as opposed to the food contents. So, while your example sentence (3) is bad English, this one is good:

The meal is a common ritual throughout all human society.

So it seems that it's not even enough to know which individual words can refer to general concepts since some meanings of the same word may represent a general concept while the others do not.

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  • Thank so much for helping me.
    – LE HANH
    Sep 10, 2022 at 17:17
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    I find it possible to use "the meal" with a general meaning ("the concept of the meal"). For example: "In Stone Age Europe, people snacked throughout the day. The meal was invented toward the end of that era by the caveman Grok." That's certainly not a common usage, but I don't think it's wrong. Sep 10, 2022 at 17:26
  • 3
    @MarcInManhattan Great point. I've updated my answer to reflect that usage of "the meal"
    – gotube
    Sep 10, 2022 at 17:41
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    @LEHANH "Thank so much for helping me." First, it's "thanks so much", "thanks, so much", or "thank you so much". Second, using a comment merely to thank someone is against the SE rules. Oct 19, 2023 at 7:36

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