“The” does not often give a noun general meaning but it does if the noun is of the right kind
THE ABILITY OF “the” TO EXPRESS GENERAL MEANING
A full survey of the uses of the is outside the aims of this blog, since they are a common topic in most good books on English grammar. However, some of the uses give especial problems to writers of academic and professional English and so do deserve analysis. The problem with the general-meaning use of the is not just that it is rare, but also that the more commonly expresses specific meaning – the opposite of general (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”).
Other Guinlist posts featuring the examine its use with adjectives (6. Adjectives with no Noun 1 and 102. Adjectives with no Noun 2), with proper nouns (47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns), with list names (55. Sentence Lists 2), with superlatives (82. Common Errors in Making Comparisons) and with plural nouns (110. Nouns without “the” or “a”). The use of the with general meaning may be illustrated like this:
(a) The heart pumps blood around the body.
The heart and the body here are general in their meaning because they stand for everybody’s heart and body, rather than those of a specific person. The more common use of the to express specific meaning looks like this:
(b) The victim was stabbed through the heart.
The heart here means the specific one of a single person on a single occasion, rather than people’s hearts in general. The clue is the meaning of the surrounding words, particularly the past tense verb stabbed.
CHARACTERISTICS OF GENERAL MEANING
General meaning exists in nouns when they are in timeless statements – statements true of all rather than particular times. Nouns with general meaning frequently refer to all instances of what the noun stands for, but fewer than all are also possible, often indicated by words like most and many (see 95. Hedging). General meaning can even exist in nouns standing for only one thing or idea, such as the sun or the Internet. In the following, the sun must be general because the verb action is timeless:
(c) The sun rises in the east.
On the other hand, nouns with non-general meaning can be plural as well as singular. Adding -s to victim in (b) above, for example, would not make it general – the reference would be to a specific group of victims rather than a general one. Sometimes we can even be a little specific when talking about the complete group of something, like this:
(d) The stars are impossibly far away.
This seems to be less general than saying stars alone. However, the possibility of adding or not adding the with a complete group of something does not often exist. For example, in talking about all worms, it would be normal to say worms rather than the worms. Perhaps it is visibility that explains why generalizing the can be used with stars and not worms: we can easily see a large number of stars all together, but not a large number of worms.
WHEN TO USE “the” WITH GENERAL MEANING
It is much more normal for the to express non-general (specific) meaning than general. General meaning is normally shown by the article a(n) with singular countable nouns – e.g. A star is a distant sun – and by no article at all with plural and uncountable nouns – e.g. Stars are mostly hydrogen (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”). It is only in special cases – mostly involving singular countable nouns – that the can express general meaning. The rest of this post is about these cases.
1. Unique Entities
Sometimes a concept, person or thing is the only one of its kind in existence, or the only one in a particular situation. If it is expressed by means of a countable noun, the singular form with the is likely to be correct regardless of generality. It is a countable noun like this (the sun) that has general meaning in sentence (c) above. Note that uncountable nouns cannot be used with the in this way. For the difference between countable and uncountable, see 14. Noun Countability Clues 1.
2. Parts of the Human Body
Generalizations about parts of the body, such as (a) above, tend to have the. This is the case even with plural and uncountable nouns, e.g.
(e) The fingers are easily affected by frostbite.
(f) The blood carries oxygen around the body.
3. Plant and Animal Species
Plants and animals can be divided into smaller and smaller groups, of which the smallest is called a species. Many particular species have two names in English: an everyday one, e.g. lions, and a technical one of Latin origin, e.g. Felis leo (see 45. Latin Clues to English Spelling for more on Latin influences and 77. Apposition on multiple names). It is everyday species names that can be used with general-meaning the (Latin ones must always have no article). They must usually be in the singular form (the lion). Here is another example:
(g) The honey bee faces numerous threats.
The next largest group after a species is a genus (plural = genera). Genera too are occasionally shown to have general meaning by means of the and the singular form of an everyday name, though not as often as species. Examples are the oak tree and the elephant. However, it is generally advisable not to use general-meaning the with a genus name unless you are sure that English allows it. You can always use a(n) or a plural without an article instead.
The concept of tools is examined in the post 73. Ways of Saying How. The possibility of singular tool names combining with general-meaning the is well illustrated by this proverb:
(h) The pen is mightier than the sword.
It seems important that the normal use of the tool must be envisaged for choosing general-meaning the. There would be much less possibility of such a choice, for example, if one was talking about pens being used for something other than writing, like measuring short distances.
5. Musical Instruments
This category is similar to the last in allowing general-meaning the with singular countable nouns provided the primary purpose of the instrument is being referred to. Consider these:
(i) Violins have a beautiful sound.
(j) Violins cost a great deal of money.
Only (i) could also start with The violin because only it is about the music of violins. In sentences like (i), where there is a choice between using and not using the, the selection of the directs attention more to the music of the instrument than to the instrument itself. To take another example, saying that someone generally plays a guitar suggests that the same instrument is used every time, whereas plays the guitar makes no suggestion at all about the actual instrument(s) used.
6. Members of Professions
Words referring to members of professions include artists, engineers, nurses, accountants and doctors. General statements with such names often keep them in the singular with the. The famous author James Joyce, for example, gave one of his books the title Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A typical sentence using general the might be:
(k) Numerous daunting challenges face the newly-qualified teacher.
7. Nouns Described by Words after them
Nouns can be described (“modified”) by four main kinds of following structure: participles, preposition phrases, statements with a conjunction like that, where or when, and statements with a relative pronoun like who, which or that (see 15. Half-Read Sentences). General-meaning nouns followed by any of these seem able to have the especially when they are plural or uncountable:
(l) (The) roads in large cities are usually congested.
(m) There is a need to recapture (the) water lost through evaporation.
It may be the case, however, that the is unlikely before a noun with a modifying expression of a special kind. One of these kinds seems to be words meaning “like that” or “of that kind”, as in material of that kind, failure like that and preferences similar to ours.
8. Adjectives with no Accompanying Noun
When the is combined with just an adjective in expressions like the poor and the impossible, the meaning is always general. For a full explanation, see 6. Adjectives with no Noun 1: People-Naming and 102. Adjectives with no Noun 2: Thing-Naming.