Student Stumper 20: Generic uses of articles

QUESTION: I thought “the” made a  noun specific or unique. Why is it correct to say the blue whale is an endangered species? Shouldn’t we say blue whales or a blue whale?

ANSWER: Grammar certainly becomes confusing when the number of choices increases. I think it’s important to stress that the rules which teachers and textbooks present are meant to be taken as guidelines because they reflect patterns. There will always be exceptions to the so-called rules. It’s best to say most of the time indefinite articles are for general references and definite articles are for specific references. Students will learn that [the + singular noun] can refer to a whole group, and not one specific member. Ann Salzman of the University of Illinois confirmed my hunch that this structure is more formal than [zero article + plural noun], which also is used to make a general reference.[1]

  • The blue whale is an endangered species. (more typical of formal, written language)
  • Blues whales are considered endangered. (more standard)

Jay Maurer  offers additional observations of some common patterns. He explains that [the + singular noun] can be used for making general references to inventions and musical instruments, as in  the bicycle or the piano. [The + plural noun] can be used  in a generic sense when using names of peoples or species, for example, the Native Americans or the chimpanzees.[2] 

The next question that comes to my mind is how best to teach all these exceptions and alternatives? My strategy for the series I’m creating on YouTube is to start with a basic overview of English articles and their most common uses. My introduction is a two-part lesson. The subsequent ones with patterns that apply to smaller groups of nouns should be shorter, allowing time for learners to absorb the new information and integrate with their present understanding. I don’t think the goal will be to cover every possible exception. I want to teach the most common patterns and highlight key exceptions in contexts that will be memorable. Suggestions are welcome!

[1] Salzmann, Ann. Articles in English. Intensive English Institute of the University of Illinois.

[2] Mauer, Jay. Focus on Grammar: An integrated skills approach. Pearson Longman, 2006.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Hello, Jennifer:

    That’s an interesting observation by Jay Maurer, about inventions and musical instruments, items in addition to species that are sometimes preceded by ‘the’ with the singular noun to refer to the generic.

    I think it’s important to note that ‘the’ + a singular [b]count[/b] noun can be used to refer to a species, an invention, or a musical instrument. This construction doesn’t work with ‘the’ + a noncount noun; that is, for a generic reference, we can’t say, ‘The fruit is important to our diet.’ but we can say, ‘The banana is an important source of nutrients.’ We can’t say, ‘The penicillin was a very important discovery,’ but we can say, ‘The pacemaker for cardiac patients was an important invention.’ We can’t say, ‘The broccoli is not a food that children crave,’ but we can say, ‘The carrot is not a food that children crave.’

    I think that with a noun like ‘chimpanzee,’ which is a count noun, we don’t use the definite article with the plural form as a generic reference. ‘The chimpanzees’ would have to refer to a specific, known group of chimpanzees. We’d use ‘the chimpanzee’ — in the singular – to refer to the species.

    We’ve had a similar discussion on the Azar Grammar Exchange:

    Thanks for all your blogs. I love reading them!


    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Hello Rachel,

      I’ve been pondering articles for a few weeks now, trying to decide what rules to teach and which ones I feel confident explaining. I agree that Maurer’s model phrase “save the whales” is accurate, yet I’m beginning to wonder how broadly that pattern [the + plural nouns = generic reference] applies. On the one hand, I caught myself talking about my son’s new fish and I said, “The Gourami are social fish.” Why is that correct? Is it because “Gourami” is an irregular plural? On the other hand, I agree with your reasoning about chimpanzees. If I had to explain who Jane Goodall was, I’d say, “She has done much work on behalf of chimpanzees/ …work to study and protect the chimpanzee.”

      I liked your explanation re: bamboo.
      Any chance you’d like to voice an opinion on generic references to nationalities?
      Student Stumper 19
      After doing more research and talking it over with another teacher, I’m inclined to believe “the” is used before names of nationalities which don’t form a plural with -s. Examples: the Japanese v. (zero article) Americans. Any thoughts?

      Thank you!
      Best regards,

      1. Rachel says:

        Hello, Jennifer:

        It’s interesting indeed to note the differences in formation of those nouns of nationalities ending in -ese, -sh, ch, and -s. Here are some thoughts.

        The formation of nouns and adjectives that refer to nationalities can be divided, for the most part, into two different categories. One type – for the great majority of nationalities – is the type formed by the word American. The other type is for the one formed by the word Japanese.

        First, let’s take the words as adjectives: we say an American man or a Japanese man and He is American and He is Japanese. No problem here. There is no problem for the adjectives when they modify plural nouns, either: American men and Japanese men as well as They are American and They are Japanese.

        Now, lets take the words as nouns. First, as a singular noun:

        1) We can say, for the singular: He is an American.
        2) We don’t say, for the singular: He is a Japanese.

        What do we do when we want to refer to a Japanese person if we don’t say a Japanese? Usually, we don’t. We would most likely use the adjective form He is Japanese.

        It would also be possible to say He is a Japanese man or He is a Japanese person, but these two constructions are less frequent than just He is Japanese.

        What about plural nouns?

        3) We can say, for the plural: They are Americans, with the normal –S plural ending.
        4) We cannot say, for the plural: They are Japaneses.

        How would we construct a sentence using the word Japanese as a plural noun? We can’t do it in a sentence like sentence 4), just above. Again, as with the singular, we would turn to an adjective construction: They are Japanese.

        Less frequently, we might say They are Japanese people/ Japanese men/ Japanese students, etc. But we cannot give the word Japanese the usual –S ending to make it plural. The word Japanese with a plural -S ending does not exist.

        There is a way to use the word Japanese as a noun referring to people, and this way is to form the phrase the Japanese. The Japanese can refer to a specific group of Japanese people – maybe a small group or maybe a large group. It is parallel to the plural noun we use for the AmericanS to refer to a specific group of Americans:

        5) The Americans in the group had coffee at breakfast, while the Japanese had tea.
        6) Both the Americans and the Japanese won a lot of medals for skating.

        We can also refer to the Japanese people in general using the Japanese. This is parallel to Americans:

        7) Americans have a long life expectancy, but the Japanese have an even longer life expectancy.

        In sentence 7) above, we can and do say Americans to indicate Americans in general, but we don’t say Japanese to indicate Japanese in general; we use the definite article with Japanese – the Japanese — , but we don’t have to use it with Americans.

        We can also use the definite article with Americans to indicate Americans in general, and we often do. There are some differences in meaning here – using the with Americans or omitting the — which is an interesting separate discussion. But for our purposes here, just note that we don’t say, ‘Japanese have a long life expectancy’; it has to be ‘The Japanese have a long life expectancy.

        I have used the words American and Japanese here as examples to refer to the two types of constructions used to refer to nationalities.

        The type formed with the usual –S plural ending applies to most nationalities. We would also say the Canadians, the Mexicans, the Brazilians, the Russians, the Italians, the Malaysians, the Australians, the New Zealanders, the South Africans, the Kuwaitis, the Saudis, the Israelis, etc.

        That list is very long. The list of nationalities with names like Japanese is limited to those ending in –ese, -ch, -sh, and –s. In addition to the Japanese, it includes the names of nationalities like these: the Chinese, the Portuguese, the Vietnamese, the Senegalese, the French, the English (also the British), the Spanish, and the Swiss. So, we would say:

        • Our class consists of a Mexican, two Peruvians, three Saudis, four Japanese, and five Chinese.

        • She’s a Venezuelan who married a Spanish man. (a noun is required after Spanish. We can’t say a Spanish).

        • The Haitians suffered a terrible earthquake this year, and the Chinese did too.

        In summary, the names of most nationalities occur in both adjective and noun forms, with the usual rules: adjectives don’t have the –S plural endings, and plural nouns do have the –S plural ending.

        A few nationalities – those ending in –ese, -ch, -sh, and –s – have an adjective form that is regular. The noun forms, however, are different from the other type in these respects:

        1) A singular noun isn’t used with just the name of the nationality; we don’t say a Spanish. We have to use the adjective form + noun: a Spanish man.

        2) Thhere is no –s/-s ending for the plural form. We can’t say the Spanishes; we have to say either the Spanish or the Spanish people. (Occasionally, there is a special word for a person: a Spaniard, for example, or a Frenchman or an Englishman. We can use these, too.)

        Here is a simplified table of the points above:

        Names of most nationalities Nationalities with names ending in –-ese,- sh, -ch, and -s
        Adjective He is American
        They are American. He is Japanese.
        They are Japanese.
        Singular noun He is an American. He is Japanese.*
        He is a Japanese man*.
        He is a Japanese.
        Plural noun They are Americans. They are Japanese.*
        They are Japanese people.*
        They are Japaneses.
        To refer to a group The Americans were on time.
        The Japanese were on time, too.**

        To make a generalization Americans drink coffee.
        The Americans drink coffee. The Japanese drink tea.**
        Japanese drink tea.
        * The word Japanese is not a noun in these instances.
        ** The word Japanese is a noun in these instances.

        There is more to think about with the names of nationalities: the use of an article or not and how that affects meaning; which article to use; the possible connotations that go with the use of the adjective structure vs. a noun structure. These topics are interesting, and we should address them separately.

      2. englishwithjennifer says:

        Thank you, Rachel, for giving much food for thought. There’s a lot I’ll review and consider when I make my final video on languages and nationalities. (I’m working on places and geographical names right now.) I think you bring up a good point, and that’s the strategy of avoidance. When a structure becomes awkward in some way, we reword it. For fear of being incorrect, I would hesitate to use “Japanese” and “Chinese” in the example our class consists of a Mexican, two Peruvians, three Saudis, four Japanese, and five Chinese. I’d opt for the adjective forms rather than the noun forms: We have 15 students of different nationalities. One is Mexican, two are Peruvians… Or perhaps I’d use “from + country”: One is from Mexico, two are from Peru… Of course, these paraphrases are wordy, but I’d feel more confident of their accuracy.

        Thanks again for posting! I love the challenge of trying to understand and explain the use of articles. 🙂

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