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Building off another question I answered here, I couldn't justify why exactly we say:

I like to ride bicycles.

Instead of:

I like to ride a bicycle.

(This could be anything: "climb mountains", "fly helicopters", etc.)

Both of these forms should refer to some generic, indeterminate bicycle object. But we can't ride more than one at a time, nor do we mean to say that we like to ride them one after the other, so how does the plural form work here?

Even though the second example looks like a valid construction, it just doesn't sound right. I suspect it's because the indefinite article "a" adds something when used in this sense, instead of just meaning to say "a bicycle" in the generic sense, it implies:

I like to ride a (particular kind of bicycle).

However, "I like to ride my bicycle" works. Is it because "my" makes it less generic, or just because it means "the one that is mine"? So why does the indeterminate "a" not work in the same construction?

(The only sense where "a" seems to fit is when using the conditional: I would like to ride a bicycle. But again, this has a slightly different meaning than I would like to ride bicycles, in the general sense.)

How should I understand what's happening in these constructions?

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Related: Why is there no plural indefinite article? –  Daniel Sep 24 '11 at 22:26
    
@drɱ65δ I was going to say that it seems to have something to do with the lack of a plural indefinite article, that the OP's first example is an example of this "missing" article...thanks for the reference! –  JeffSahol Sep 24 '11 at 22:33
    
It's not the (particular kind of bicycle) that makes a difference here, so much as (one particular bicycle). Or (any bicycle, but in one particular kind of situation). –  FumbleFingers Sep 25 '11 at 12:39

3 Answers 3

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The reason I like to ride a bicycle doesn't work is because the singular indefinite article implies there's just one particular bicycle you like riding.

When you say I like to ride bicycles there's an implied plural indefinite article there, but we discarded that word centuries ago. We're so used to not using it we don't even notice it's not there.

Even though the article is missing, we understand as if it were there; we don't suppose OP likes riding more than one bicycle at a time - he likes riding [some, most, many, all, any] bicycles.

I think the success of this usage encourages us to discard the singular definite article in various related contexts. So I like to play the piano, is increasingly giving way to I like to play piano (even more noticeably with the more modern I like to play guitar).

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In I like to ride a bicycle to work, adding to work changes it so a bicycle doesn't imply just one particular bicycle. –  xpda Sep 25 '11 at 3:37
    
@xpda: It also changes it so you might not necessarily like to ride a bicycle at other times. The qualifier to work limits the scope, which is why it becomes singular, I think. –  FumbleFingers Sep 25 '11 at 4:34

It seems to me that your first example ("I like to ride bicycles") is using a workaround for the missing plural indefinite article in English. Effectively there is an implied plural indefinite article there. So both sentences are, in effect, using the indefinite article. That being the case, why singular vs. plural?

That would be because the indefinite article can indicate different things about the noun. Specifically,

"It may be something that the speaker is mentioning for the first time, or its precise identity may be irrelevant or hypothetical, or the speaker may be making a general statement about any such thing."

It would seem that the plural is preferred in the latter case, when making a general statement. You can, though, make a general statement out of the singular by adding a qualifier or using a conditional:

I like to ride a bicycle when I am at the beach.

I would like to ride a bicycle at the beach.

That seems to be the distinction: unadorned singular indefinite articles don't work as a way to generalize.

I am not a trained linguist, so I will likely need some correction on this, especially the conjecture on the implied plural indefinite article and the lazy generalizations about singular vs. plural.

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I don't see what you mean when you say "I like to ride bicycles" is using a "workaround". It doesn't use an article because English doesn't have a plural indefinite article, and we don't have one because we don't need it. How is it a "workaround" to not use a word that we don't have and don't need? I'm not doing the spadework, but I'm pretty sure we used to have one until we realised we didn't need it, centuries ago. –  FumbleFingers Sep 25 '11 at 0:23
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It is my way of expressing that English works around the problem of not having a word for the plural indefinite article by simply omitting it. I don't disagree with you that it's not needed, either. I just needed to have a way of talking about the plural vs singular usage, where the two examples are otherwise essentially identical. –  JeffSahol Sep 25 '11 at 0:38
    
OK, well you said you might need some correction. But good point about tending to switch to the singular if there's a qualifier/conditional phrase attached to the bike. I can't say to the bikes there, obviously, because by definition it's one bike in one context. –  FumbleFingers Sep 25 '11 at 1:03

‘I like to ride bicycles’, while being grammatical, strikes me as odd. It suggests that I like to ride lots of different bicyles. If I want to say that cycling appeals to me in general, then ‘I like to ride a bicycle’ seems to meet the case, although it might more often be modified as ‘I like to ride a bicycle from time to time’ or ‘I like to ride a bicycle when it’s not too cold.’ The indefinite article can be used to mean ‘any example of something’ (‘How English Works’, Swan and Walter) and that’s exactly what it’s doing here. After all, we’d say ‘I like to carry an umbrella when rain is forecast’ and not ‘I like to carry umbrellas when rain is forecast.’

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Good points. So does it strike you as odd that "I like to ride a bicycle" doesn't fully work either unless it's qualified ("from time to time"/"when it's not too cold")? Also, "I like to carry umbrellas" is different than "an umbrella": while the first one is ridiculous, it seems the subject likes to do that, just because, without reason. The second implies "just in case it rains". At least, that's how I hear it. –  Andrew Vit Sep 25 '11 at 18:29
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Not necessarily. 'I like to ride a bicycle' might well be possible on its own during the course of a conversation on means of transport. Someone might say 'I always go there on foot, myself' to which the response might come 'Well, I like to ride a bicycle myself.' It's difficult to assess single sentences like this isolated from the discourse in which they occur. –  Barrie England Sep 26 '11 at 11:10

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