1

Consider:

  1. A strict constraint on the power consumption can severely affect performance of electronic devices.

  2. A strict constraint on the power consumption can severely affect performance of the electronic devices.

  3. Strict constraints on the power consumption can severely affect performance of an electronic device.

I don't know when should I use (1), (2) or (3). Is there any difference ?

1

Using articles like 'the', 'a' and 'an' in English is not always obvious. I have seen Spanish natives adding too many articles and Chinese natives adding too few articles. But sometimes it is vice versa.

The original question had the word 'devises' which is a verb meaning something like 'invents' or 'designs'; should be replaced by 'devices' which are the machines. Also 'a' becomes 'an' when the next word begins with a vowel sound.

You may want to replace "the power" for just "power" in all three sentences. Then I would take 1 instead of 2, for the same reason that I was removing the article 'the' from power. Usually you do not use an article in front of a generic noun like 'power' or in a plural noun like 'electronic devices'. But you do want an article in front of a singular noun, so instead of 'performance' it should be 'the performance'.

The two remaining sentences would be:

1) A strict constraint on power consumption can severely affect the performance of electronic devices.

3) Strict constraints on power consumption can severely affect the performance of an electronic device.

These two are perfectly fine. There are two more combinations that are also perfectly fine:

4) A strict constraint on power consumption can severely affect the performance of an electronic device.

5) Strict constraints on power consumption can severely affect the performance of electronic devices.

In other words, regarding using a plural or a singular with 'a' you are free to choose. You can refer to all objects of a kind using the plural or you can choose to take the "an object" which is a representative of all objects of its kind.

Of course, the first sentence of the preceding paragraph may have been

In other words, regarding using plurals or singulars with 'a' you are free to choose.

  • Thanks for the answer as well as the correction of original question. So, you suggest that both are interchangeable when our object is "general fact about something". – Cardinal Feb 24 '16 at 16:10
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In English, "a" (or "an") is a more general article, while "the" implies that there are specific instances of the concept that are relevant. There are two parts of these sentences that we can look at:

In the first part, the use of "a" vs. no article+the plural can suggest slightly different things:

(1) A strict constraint on the power consumption [...]

(3) Strict constraints on the power consumption [...]

Sentence 1 can be interpreted to mean "any strict constraint on power consumption would cause effect x". I think most people reading sentence 3 would also interpret it the same way as 1, but since you used the plural constraints, it could also be interpreted to mean "multiple [concurrent] strict constraints on power consumption would cause x." As another example, consider the following sentences:

(Ex. 1) Taking a painkiller can result in liver toxicity.

(Ex. 2) Taking painkillers can result in liver toxicity.

Example one suggests that any painkiller can cause liver damage, while example two could be interpreted as taking multiple painkillers at the same time can cause liver damage (which, in turn, can suggest that just taking one is safe, which may or may not be the meaning you want to convey). I think most English speakers would understand what you meant in either of the cases you presented, but if we're being pedantic, sentence 1 has slightly less room for ambiguity.

In the second part of the sentence, the use of no article/a(n)/the does slightly change the meaning:

(1) [...] severely affect the performance of electronic devices.

(2) [...] severely affect performance of the electronic devices.

(3) [...] severely affect performance of an electronic device.

In sentence 1, the most common interpretation is most likely that "x can affect (general) electronic devices" (both "one electronic device" and "multiple electronic devices" are possible interpretations, and both are reasonable here). Sentence 3 is more or less the same as sentence one. Sentence 2, however, is different. It implies that there is a set of electronic devices your sentence applies to, for example toasters and refrigerators but not ovens. Your audience would need to understand which devices "the" is specifying, typically clear from the context of the rest of the paragraph/article/etc.

In summary: "a" is the article to use when you don't have a specific object or type of objects in mind. "The" is what you should use when you're referring to a defined instance or set of objects.

  • Thanks for the answer. I know "a" and "the" are different. I was wondering, what form do you use when you want to imply a general fact? – Cardinal Feb 24 '16 at 16:15
  • You would use "a," or no article with the plural form. Unless you're referring to specific types of constraints, or specific types of electrical devices, "the" conveys more specificity than it seems like you're looking for. I would go with "a" for both parts of the sentence: "A strict constraint on the power consumption can severely affect the performance of an electronic device." – Emmett Feb 24 '16 at 21:28

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