What had thrown me into perplexity were collocations of a subject in the plural and the indefinite article with the word "farm" in the phrase "on a farm" (and others of the kind).

My specific question would be about the articles in the patterns of this sort: "Some, different ("what" in interrogations) animals live on a/the farm" and "Farmers grow wheat (or whatever) on a/the farm". And, particularly, when these sentences are being said just to inform the interlocutor about something that he is not fully in the know of, if at all.
A situation may be something like this: "I'd like to know something about animals? - Well, some animals live on a/the farm and some live in a/the forest". Or: "What do farmers usually do and where? - Farmers grow wheat on a/the farm".

Having looked it up on Ngram I found that in 1950 the phrase "animals live on the farm" could be come across more than 10 times often than "animals live on a farm" (with a zero result for "on a farm" in 1951). Then around 2007 the indefinite article version got ahead by a threefold margin. And in 2019 the "animals live on the farm" took the lead by almost the same threefold margin.

It is noteworthy that both "a" and "the" readings are to be encountered in contexts that seem almost, not to say absolutely, akin to one another (book titles: "Chickens on the Farm", "Chickens on a Farm, "Pigs on the Farm", "Pigs on a Farm" and so on).

I can easily take in: "Where do you live? - I live on a farm" or "What is the life on a farm like?". Because it is clear that here it goes about one farm, any farm of many etc.

But I can't tell the reason why it is: "Different animals live on a farm" or "Farmers grow wheat on a farm". However neither animals nor farmers can live or grow something on one farm or on any (every) farm, to what the article "a" decisively alludes. Thus it could be turning up the faulty assumption if using the indefinite article in such sentences. Because "farm" here obviously infers its generic implication, i.e. that "farm" is a certain facility whereat agricultural or cattle breeding activities are carried on. And the subjects in the plural also convey the idea of them [subjects] bringing in the generic sense.
To my mind here is a good example of the generic implication of "farm": "... and forget the unpleasant by wrapping themselves in a woolly humanitarianism; in this way the public conscience has been dulled and is unmindful of the conditions under which animals live on the farm, are transported to the market...".

Thus, my inquiry has led me up to the following questions:

  • could the sentences in question be also said with the definite article: "Some/different etc. (or "what" in interrogations) animals live on the farm" or "Farmers grow wheat (or whatever) on the farm"?
  • (it is the most important part of my question) why is the indefinite article used with subjects in the plural in such patterns as: "Some/different etc. (or "what" in interrogations) animals live on a farm" or "Farmers grow wheat (or whatever) on a farm"?
  • 2
    Related to this question. The farm can refer to 'farms as a type of environment/business' in the same way that we refer to 'going to the supermarket' to mean going to buy food without necessarily meaning a particular supermarket. Commented Apr 28 at 12:57
  • It depends on context, so it's better if you have a more specific question. You can certainly say "on the farm" in some contexts, "on a farm" in others, and both in some contexts, but it's hard to enumerate every possible context. It would depend on whether it's a general or specific farmer; if you'd been talking about farmers or farms before; if it was important which farm it was; if you are implying one farm to one farmer or being more general; and I suspect tone and genre matter a bit ("on the farm" would be at home in a children's book) etc.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 28 at 13:53
  • @Stuart F Animals, farmers and the farm are all generic in my question.
    – Eugene
    Commented Apr 28 at 14:40
  • The use of a/the is covered extensively on this site. By the way, one can also say: Farmers grow wheat on farms. You can't say: Farmers grow wheat on farm. English requires a determiner (except with newspeak and some legal texts) for countable nouns or an s. Ngrams does not show this and is useless to explain this fact.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 28 at 17:46

4 Answers 4


In most settings, the normal rules about the indefinite article "a" vs the definite article "the" apply - if you're making a general observation about any particular farm or speaking about one farm your audience is not familiar with, you should say "a farm", but if you're talking about a specific farm you have previously identified or is known to the audience then say "the farm".


  • My family own a farm (your audience was not previously aware and doesn't know any specifics about the farm yet)
  • I work on the farm owned by my family (you have specified which farm you work on)
  • It is tough running a farm (general statement, could apply to any farm)

However, "on the farm" can also be an idiomatic way of referring to farms in general, and that seems to be the case with your example. "What kind of animals live on the farm?" could be a general question about the typical animals on any farm.

This isn't unusual - we do the same with other animal habitats, too; for example, you can say "fish inhabit the ocean", or "giraffes live on the savanna", even though there are many oceans and savannas.

  • 1
    Thank you! That is exactly what my "lusciously wrought" question is all about. Trully speaking, I'm hopelessly unable to wrap my brain around "Some animals live on a farm" when the subject is in the plural. What can it be meaning and what is that unidentified unspecified farm, one of many, (or is it every farm?) that we can mention in this case? Is it conveying the idea that not many animals usually live on an average farm? Or is it that different animal species but not all usually live on an average farm? I think there should be a modal verb put in: "Some animals CAN/MAY live on a farm".
    – Eugene
    Commented Apr 28 at 17:05
  • 1
    @Eugene I don't think it's even that complicated. We refer to chickens, pigs, cows etc as "farm animals" in the same way as we'd describe others as wild animals, sea fish etc. When "the farm" is generic it's just like saying "in the wild" or "in the sea". We can use the definite article for human environments too - for example "you could wear these shoes to the office". And saying something like "these are animals you'd find on the farm" is a generalisation. A typical farm, not every farm.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Apr 28 at 22:04
  • Turning over your this comment I said:"Eurica". "Generalisation" is what I will certainly have to take up"!
    – Eugene
    Commented Apr 29 at 13:42
  • In general, we'd say: These are animals you'd find on a farm. not the farm.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 30 at 20:10

Both "Cows live on a farm" and "Cows live on the farm" are correct and natural to describe the general habitat of cows.

There are a few words for places in English which can be preceded by "the" and not indicate a specific location, but the concept of the place in general, particularly in terms of its function or as a habitat. These include:


  • the post office
  • the bank
  • the store
  • the gas station


  • the zoo
  • the desert
  • the ocean
  • the forest
  • the farm

Note: Not all habitats or places with functions can use "the" this way:

Catfish live in the lake.
George spent all day at the restaurant.

Here, "the lake" and "the restaurant" necessarily refer to a specific lake and restaurant. The first sentence means there are catfish in the specific lake, and makes no mention of the natural habitat of the catfish species. The second sentence means George spent the day at a specific restaurant, and indicates nothing about why he was there or what he did.

There is no rule that governs which words can use "the" like this. The learner has to learn which are which.

  • ♦ Does "the" necessarily refer to a specific restaurant in: "What does he do now? - He works at the restaurant somewhere in London now"?
    – Eugene
    Commented Apr 28 at 17:45
  • 1
    @Eugene John: I got a job at a restaurant. The restaurant is very fancy and expensive. Billy: Is the restaurant near us? //See? :) The movement from a to the the is very common in English.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 28 at 17:56
  • @Lambie Are "I got a job in a restaurant" and "I work in a restaurant" possible?
    – Eugene
    Commented Apr 28 at 17:59
  • @Eugene Sure, both are generalities. The verb doesn't "govern" the use of a. The idea of generality does. And your next sentence about that will need: The restaurant is [whatever].
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 28 at 18:15
  • 1
    @Eugene there's a significant difference between some of the examples here and your own example. "I'm going to the bank", for example, is not generic. Anyone saying this has a specific bank in mind. You could reasonably ask "which bank?". "The Post Office" doesn't mean branches of the post office in general, it means the entire organisation as a whole. I found parts of this answer misleading when applied to your question specifically.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Apr 29 at 7:20

You can have any combination of a and the in terms of grammar.

The animal lives on a farm. [specific animal, already discussed]
An animal lives on a farm or zoo. [generality]
An animal lived on the farm. [= There was an animal on that previously discussed farm]
The animal lives on the farm. [two specifics, already discussed].

More academic and formal:
The lion is a noble beast. [use of the for a category of something followed by a generality] Another example: The cathedral has a complicated structure.

Why? Because in English, what you can't have is this:
Animal live on farm.

Countable nouns require determiners of some kind or an s (except for headlines and some legal texts). You can have: animals live on farms.

Lastly, in terms of generalities, this often happens, you go from a to the, like this:

  • I got a job in a restaurant. The restaurant is light, airy and beautifully decorated. And the job is great!
  • Having been going through the answers and comments I have arrived at some interesting point. It is the stress. Can the stress facilitate resolution of what article to choose? "WHO live on a farm?-SOME ANIMALS live on a farm". "What do some animals DO on a farm?-Some animals LIVE on a farm". "WHERE do some animals live?-Some animals live on THE FARM=FARMS (and here the farm refers to farms as a category, type of environment/business). Can my inference be right?
    – Eugene
    Commented Apr 30 at 20:11
  • @Eugene [Who lives on a farm]. Animals live on a farm or on farms. I already explained this. Here we go again: Some animals live on the farm. requires a previous mention of the actual farm. Why are you making me repeat this again? Look: "Do you live on a farm? Yes, the farm is 8 miles outside of town. OR: I live on a farm. Some animals on the farm are easy to care for. Your "the farm" **requires prior discussion of which farm so that it becomes "the farm". You can't just use "the farm" as a generality. It is always going to be specific to a previous mention of it.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 30 at 20:49
  • Or it will be like this: A specificity. The farm my aunt lives on is huge. [specific, not general]
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 30 at 20:50

For some application, but not all applications, I recommend modeling English sentences using first order logic and set theory, but without any discussion of cardinality or bijections.

In particular, English-style syntax for first order logic focuses on the following two phrases:

  1. "for any"

  2. "there exists"

Imagine that you are in an receptionist's room or lobby and there is exactly one desk and on the desk is exactly one custom-decorated soup can containing more than a half dozen ballpoint pens.

The following two phrases differ in meaning:

  • *There exists a dry pen p inside of the empty soup can.

  • for any pen, p, inside of the empty soup can, pen p is dry.

Set Theory allows us to talk about categories.

Informally, consider the set -- or category -- of all clothing items intended by a fashion designer to be worn on your feet.

Socks and Shoes belong in the set of clothing items intended to be worn on human feet.

Specifics Regarding the Word THE

English & Logic
"We learned how to sew amaranth on a farm. "There exists a farm f such that we learned how to sew amaranth on f."

Perhaps, more than one farm exists in the world.

We drew lots, and chose one out of the many farms to visit and learn about sewing amaranth.
"∃ fFARMS such that we learned how to sew amaranth on farm f."
"We learned how to sew amaranth on the farm." There exists a unique farm f such that we learned how to sew amaranth on farm f.

There is one and only one farm in the current scope; not two farms, and not three farms, and not four farms.
"∃ fFARMS such that we learned how to sew amaranth on farm f." and ∀ gFARMS and ∀ hFARMS we have that g is h and h is g

In English, the word "THE" is used to refer to an element of a set such that there is exactly one element of that set.

For example, if I told a volunteer at a food bank to give a loaf of bread "to the woman" standing outside, and there was a line of more than a dozen women standing outside, then the volunteer at the food bank would be likely to take exception with me.

The word THE connotes existence and uniqueness.

The world THE is almost a quantifier for the number one.

Note that there is an old saying.... "e pluribus unum"

Note, that it is the choice of the author to decide whether something is one or many.

Consider the house-cats people keep as pets.

We can consider the set of all house-cats on earth to be a single object.

A set is one object, not many objects.

Thus, we can write, "the cat is a small furry animal having two ears and whiskers"

When people write about "the cat", then there is only one cat in our model or our linguistic framework.

When an author writes about "a cat", then that particular author has chosen to select one element of a set and disregard the other elements.

For example, an author might write, "a cat was stalking a grasshopper while the farmer tried to explain to us that a planting stick required fewer labor hours to produce than a steel garden trowel."

When we speak of "a cat", then the farmer owns more than one cat, perhaps with different color fur coats, and our attention is directed to a specific feline while disregarding the other felines.

When we speak of "the cat", then perhaps the farmer owns only one cat. It is not the case that the farmer has two or more cats.

In most English writing, there exists a unique cat in the current context.

We use the word the to show that the cat referred to in the current sentence is the same as the cat referred to in the previous sentence.

The word "a" choses a new element from a set of elements each time the word "a" is used.

The word "the" indicates that the current element of interest is the same as the element taken in a previous sentence.

The word "the" is analogous to an anonymous function in computer programming.

Instead of an anonymous function, we have an anonymous variable.

1 "Let x be a decimal number" "We take a decimal number"
[2 ... 3] [...] [...]
4 Therefore, x is an element of the quotients Therefore, the decimal number [we took earlier] is an element of the quotients.

Sometimes, an element of a set is chosen, but the element is not named.

A cat is chosen from the set of farmer's cats, but the cat is not given a name such as "Tom", or "Stripes", or "Socks", or "Pooh Bear", or any other name.

Sometimes, cat is without label, anonymous, and the cat is devoid of any name.

Then, the cat is said to be "the cat".

The scope of "the cat" bridges across multiple sentences.

Use of the word "*the" shows that are not discussing a new and different cat in each sentence.

An instance of the cat class is inserted into the current workspace.

After the initial instantiation, the phrase "the cat" is valid if and only if the workspace contains exactly one instance of the cat class.

The phrase, "the cat", could be replaced with a specific name for the cat, if you chose to name it "x" or somthing like that.

In English writing before the year 1900, the phrase "the cat" refers to the cat class, instead of cat instances.

When you hold time constant, then an instance of the cat class has specific coordinates in three-dimensional space (x-y-z-coordinates).

For example, an instance of the cat class might be asleep in your specific bedroom.

However, the cat class has no specific coordinates in space.

The cat class is a generality and the cat instance is more specific.

  • To me it's all clear with the article "a" in "We learned how to sew amaranth on a farm". I.e. we went to a farm (one unspecified element of a set) and learned there how to sew amaranth. But I can't figure out what SHALL be the context where one may just say: "You know, some cats live on a farm". At least it ought to be something like:"Some cats [can] live on a farm and some cats [can] live in a house". If I'm being deluded in my concept then could you, please, give me the direct interpretation (and contexts for them) of: "Some animals live on a farm" and "Farmers grow wheat on a farm".
    – Eugene
    Commented Apr 30 at 7:34
  • "decorated [empty] soup can" adding empty might make it clearer what "can" is meant but why use such an unusual quirky phrase in the first place? It adds nothing to the answer. A "pen container" or better still a "penholder" is clear and easy to understand for learners.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 30 at 9:16
  • You sow grains on a farm [We learned how to sew amaranth on a farm.] . To sew is to use a needle and thread. -1 for the verbose answer. Although I do like the formatting.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 30 at 9:18

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