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This line appears in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance:

Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history.

I have been told that in order to express generality, one should use the definite article if the noun is singular. In this case it should be "the man", rather than just "man".

And often they are in plural form like this example:

Words are the foundations of a language.

What if I re-wrote the sentence to use the singular form, as Emerson might?

Word is the foundation of a language.

When should a word be singular and when should it be plural in expressing generality?

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When should a word be singular and when should it be in plural when it comes to generality?

They should usually be plural. "Man" is an exception.

If you say "The man is explicable by..." it means we were talking about a specific man, and that he is explicable by nothing less than all his history.

You should say:

Men are explicable by nothing less than all their history.

because you want to use plural when referring to a generality. However, Man has another definition:

The human race: humankind

"Man" is frequently used as a metaphor for all of humankind, which is why you can use 'man' to refer to a generality. You could just as easily say

Humankind is explicable by nothing less than all it's history.


Will it be ok if I use singular in the sentence above instead:

Word is the foundation of a language.

No, this is incorrect. The reason you can use 'man' is because of this second definition. "Word" does not have a second definition meaning "All words". Although, you could say:

Speech is the foundation of a language.

  • It may be worth noting that using singular word in that sentence invokes the idea of the popular word-processor from Microsoft, making the sentence somehow make sense — from a chauvinist MS point of view... – oerkelens Apr 16 '15 at 14:55
  • @oerkelens but then your chauvinist might say "Word is the foundation of language." – Jim Apr 17 '15 at 4:56

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