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Saussure's approach to language became popular among a new generation of university teachers in the 1970s who came from lower-middle-class backgrounds and were attracted to more technical approaches to studying culture than to the classic training of an older generation of literary critics.

Shouldn't there be the definite article 'the' before 'new generation' and 'older generation' for it is very clear from the context of this sentence what generations the author has in mind?

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    Please post the name of the book and the author. That middle-class background thing is a stretch. Sounds very iffy to me.
    – Lambie
    Nov 27, 2023 at 14:53
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    The indefinite article is somewhat diplomatic in the sense that it does not point a finger directly at the preceding generation. What matters for the argument is not who this generation was but its "classical" approach.
    – TimR
    Nov 27, 2023 at 19:01
  • Whether it should be either always depend on the circumstances. 'the older generation' refers only to one generation at one specific time. 'an older generation' refers not to the elders of a specific time, but to whatever cohort happens to be 'the older generation' at any time - including now, though that's unlikely. Nov 30, 2023 at 1:30

8 Answers 8

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Either the definite or indefinite article is possible here. As a native English speaker, I would prefer the indefinite in this context, but it is a very weak preference.

Basically, it comes down to the fact that the definite article is often used to discuss a specific entity that has already been under discussion. If we saw “the new generation” here, we expect that we can look earlier in the text to find where this generation was introduced and explained; we expect there is more information about this generation that has already been established and that the text is assuming we are familiar with. Which means that, if we don’t remember this generation having previously been introduced, we may go looking for it (or asking after it, in spoken conversation).

Since this generation hasn’t been previously discussed in the text, the indefinite article is clearer: this new generation is one we are first encountering right here, and everything we need to know about it is going to be explained within the text we’re about to read. We haven’t missed anything; we don’t need to go back and reread anything.

Unfortunately, this is not the only way the definite article is used. In other contexts, the definite article would be appropriate even if it was the first time the indicated object was brought up. But because those contexts would use the definite article that way, using it doesn’t risk misleading readers.

In other words, it is, as usual for the English language, a matter of convention. It is customary to use the indefinite article here. Using the definite article isn’t wrong, but might give the wrong impression. And, in all honesty, it probably would not. The convention is fairly weak, and odds are a reader won’t even notice it either way, and you totally could use the definite article without issue. But when you draw our attention to it, and ask for a considered opinion on which to use, I say the indefinite article was the correct (or at least, more correct) choice.

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    Usually one moves from a to the, but I agree with your answer overall. [A car can be very expensive. The car I bought was.]
    – Lambie
    Nov 27, 2023 at 14:55
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"The" would only be appropriate if the reader was expected to already be aware that there was a kind of dividing line between two generations of college instructors. You may think that there's always one generation after another, so you can always talk about "the new one" and "the old one", but this author is not talking about specific generations like Boomers or Gen Z that everybody knows about. Instead, the author is informing the reader that there were recognizably different groups of younger and older instructors who did not come from the same social class.

Added later: This is not any kind of proof for my contention that "a new" is really better for what this author was trying to convey, but I do think this ngram is informative:

Ngram showing "the next" > "a new" > "the new" > "a next" in recent years for words preceding "generation".

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The choice of definite or indefinite article is often subjective, as it is here: a matter of style, where either choice makes sense. Of course, for language learners we have to present rules, but these are typically oversimplified so one can get a foothold in the new terrain, so to speak, and part of learning a language is learning when to let go of these oversimplifications.

With the definite or indefinite article, it isn't always a question of whether it's possible to identify a specific instance of the noun. Often it's more about the importance of the specific identity of that thing to the speaker's meaning. I remember a friend of mine in a Dutch class who refused to accept that a noun should be treated as indefinite. When I pointed out to her that the sentence was also indefinite in English, she relented.

The sentence was an offer. Suppose I come to you with an apple in my hand and offer it to you. Do I say, "would you like this apple?" Probably not. More likely, I would say, "would you like an apple?" This is true even though there is a specific apple that I am offering, because although the identity of the apple is known, it is not particularly important. By using the indefinite article here, the author is perhaps focusing more on the relationship between the generations than on their identity.

Another possible factor is that of initial identification. We often use the indefinite article there because at the beginning of the sentence the identity of the noun hasn't yet been established: we're only at the beginning of the identification process. I don't know whether that's the case here, but it seems likely. Going back to the apple, I might say, for example, "Do you want an apple? The apple is red." In this case, the generation that the author is writing about isn't yet identified when you first see it ("a new generation"), but only later ("of university teachers in the 1970s who came from lower-middle-class backgrounds..."). And while I share KRyan's slight preference for the indefinite article in "a new generation," I find "an older generation" and "the older generation" to be roughly equally acceptable, probably because the context is better established by that point.

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Your reasoning is perfectly valid, and the would be completely acceptable instead of both the a and the later an.

It isn’t clear whether using the indefinite articles was a conscious choice or simply an unexamined reflex. And if the author did have reasons to use the indefinite articles, it is also not clear what those reasons might have been.

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It would appear that in context, only one pair of generations is possible, so yes, "the/the" would be correct.

But the writer's intent is probably not to say this particular pair of generations, but any pair of generations, in which case "a/an" would be correct.

In practice, it's a subtle distinction that probably doesn't matter.

Note that just because only one person or group fits the description doesn't mean we necessarily should use "the" instead of "a". Like if I said, "A presidential candidate who has been indicted for a crime should refuse to step down", well if I wrote that in 2023 any reader would know that I was surely specifically thinking of Mr Trump, but I might still be intending the statement to refer generally to anyone in this position, past, present, or future.

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for it is very clear from the context of this sentence what generations the author has in mind?

Is it? Do you know for a fact that there was only one such generation in an entire decade? More importantly, did the author assert this?

In case this lies at the root of your assertion, I just want to point out that "generation" can have an arbitrary cycle, it doesn't have to be one of human procreation. For example, if there is a clear difference between graduates today and graduates two years ago, then the 1970s could have had five generations that fit the description (and that's assuming you're not even comparing the inbetween graduation years).

You can make a reasonable justification that there was probably only one large generation (over several years) and that using the definite article would be correct to refer to that large generation, which I do agree with. I would accept the use of the definite article as correct.

However, I disagree that the author was therefore forced to assert that there was only one such generation (old or new). It's perfectly reasonable for the author to leave this unasserted, simply because it's not the focal point of what's being communicated.

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    One example of this, there were still likely incoming instructors who matched the older generation's social background, even as this younger cohort cast a wider net. In this case generation need not be exclusive, there can be concurrent paths, not just succeeding. Nov 27, 2023 at 4:53
  • @SoronelHaetir: Good point. Another way they can be concurrent is if there are several subgroups of teachers identified by their pedagogical method (e.g. Montessori, Steiner, ...) who are considered different generations because of their inherently different styles, but which for the current topic of conversation happen to deviate from the "old generation" in the same way (i.e. "came from lower-middle-class backgrounds and were attracted to more technical approaches"), and Sassure's approach became popular with one of them (e.g. the Montessori teachers)
    – Flater
    Nov 27, 2023 at 23:39
  • Well, but the OP said what generations <-- plural, though. Nov 28, 2023 at 17:44
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore.: OP used the plural because they were referring to the new and old generations, and by definition of them existing there has to be (at least) one new generation and one old generation. OP's phrasing remains correct whether there's one of each or more than one of each. The context of their question suggests that they consider there being exactly one of each, but this answer establishes that this is not provably the case and the interpretation of there being more than one of each is just as correct (and would further justify the use of the indefinite article).
    – Flater
    Nov 28, 2023 at 22:20
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To me the key is that it's a generation of something.

When used in references to a collection of people who have no close familial connections, it feels more like a quantifier, like "a dozen" or "a boxful of".

"The generation" usually only takes identifies an identifiable collection in genealogy or husbandry, but this could be extended to the sense of students eventually becoming teachers themselves, with a period that's necessarily shorter than biological generations.

In either case, one could say "the generation of X following Y" to emphasise that Y will eventually cease to have effect when a sufficient majority of the people around when Y happened are replaced.

But unless you're being that precise, a generation would seem more natural.

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Here is the clause we are interested in:

were attracted to more technical approaches to studying culture than to the training of an older generation of literary critics

Let's simplify the clause to make it easier to understand:

they preferred technical approaches to the classic training of an older generation of critics

This is a ɢᴇɴᴇʀɪᴄ use of the indefinite article. The Original Poster says that "it is very clear from the context of this sentence what generations the author has in mind". Well, yes and no. We understand which generations were actually involved in the classical training, and if the author had said the older generation of critics, these are the generations that he would have been referring to. However, the noun phrase an older generation of critics does not refer to any particular generation of critics! It describes a type of critic or a type of generation of critics.

It might help if I give a simple example with the same use of the word a. Consider the following conversation at a doctors surgery:

Receptionist: We have an appointment with Dr Bob Smith early tomorrow morning, on or one with Dr Anne Jones on Friday.

Patient: I'd prefer to see a female doctor, please.

Now, because Bob is a man's name and Anne is a woman's name, it's very clear that the patient is going to see Doctor Anne Jones, and not Dr Bob Smith. However, the patient still said a female doctor instead of the female doctor. The reason is that the important thing for her is that she is seen by a doctor who is female, it does not matter that it is this female doctor. The generic use of a often has a very similar meaning to any.

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