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From what I've learnt, there are two ways to talk about classes of things. You either use an article the + a singular noun or no article and a plural noun. For instance:

The monkey is a very smart creature.
Monkeys are very smart creatures.

Here, we talk about a class of animals, and not about any particular/inparticular monkey or a group of them.

The computer has changed the ways we interract with each other.
Computers have changed the ways we interract with each other.

Once again, we are talking about a class of devices.

So my question is, whenther there is a difference in meaning between these two ways of talking about classes?

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  • There's certainly a different feeling between describing a class and describing all instances of that class, but I can't put my finger on how to describe it in practical terms. Talking about the class feels more abstract, and talking about the instances feels more real.
    – gotube
    Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 18:18
  • These are called Generic sentences. There are generic verb forms (the simple present tense used with an active verb usually refers to habits, not present time: Bill skates in the winter; She sleeps in the room upstairs). And there are generic noun phrases like the tiger, a tiger, tigers. Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 18:25
  • It might be just my opinion, but I think The Jew has always been persecuted sounds far more insulting than Jews have always been persecuted. Whereas The lion is a dangerous animal sounds more "respectfully awe-struck" than Lions are dangerous animals. I can't put my finger on why that implication seems to reverse depending on whether The X is a class of person rather than a type of animal, though. Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 18:25
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    @FumbleFingers, my feeling is that The [race] smacks of racial typology, or similar outdated ideas. "Recent phrenological studies have shown that the Caucasoid..." Either that, or the language just sounds old-fashioned, like when Fredrick Douglas said (in 1865), "I want the franchise for the black man." And in general, any old-fashioned vocabulary having to do with race is suspect, at best.
    – Juhasz
    Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 22:15
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    @Juhasz: I guess that's it. Whenever I encounter, say, The negro is [blah blah..] it's always an older text, often written in a relatively formal style. And as you say, older Anglophone texts are often appallingly jingoistic / chauvinistic, so that's what I've been picking up on in The [race] constructions. Conversely, the fact that The [species] sounds "respectful" is probably just because Victorian writers were more likely to be somewhat "in awe" of lions, tigers, elephants, and various other "noble beasts" (while they casually trashed Negroes, Jews, etc.). Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 16:57

2 Answers 2

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There is no difference in meaning between the two. The difference and the preference for one over the other will vary based on the context. In the two examples you provided, the second usage is much more common than the first:

Computers have changed the way we interact with each other.

Monkeys are very smart creatures.

While the differences between the two are extremely subtle and the clues are probably found in the part of the discussion we don't see, I think it all relates to the fundamental rule about using an article to refer to something specific, and not using an article to refer to something that's non-specific. In this case, you need to think in terms of a shade of "specific", since these statements are intended to represent a generalization. For example:

The monkey is a very smart creature.

Using the article puts emphasis on the fact that there is a category called creatures, and that the monkey is a specific member of the category. Creature is more than just a word; it's a category.

Monkeys are very smart creatures.

There is no intended or implied reference to a category of beings called "creatures." Creatures is a word, not a specific category. Monkeys means "monkeys in general" without implying that they are members of a broader category.

The computer has changed the way we interact with each other.

The computer is probably a reference to the personal computer as opposed to business mainframes and supercomputers. So by using the article, you're referencing a subset of all computers (the computers people have used that actually have affected how they interact with each other).

Computers have changed the way we interact with each other.

Computers means computers in general. There is no specificity intended or implied.

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Thank you for your question!
Grammatically speaking, there is not really a difference between the two sentences; however, it is the way to which the "class" is referred. When you use "the computer" in respect to all computers, you're turning that class of plural nouns into a singular noun, which gives the entire subject a sense of importance, so to speak. Hope this helps!


Jackie L
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” - Plutarch

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