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I want to confirm the general rule on expressions which refer to generality.

Many reference books say that "you should use "zero article + plural noun" to refer to generality. For example, (1) is better than (2):

(1) Children like animals. (2) The child likes the animal.

The books say that (2) sounds too formal, so (1) should be used.

According to this suggestion, when you want to refer to "family" in general, you should use "families".

(3) You should consider victims' families. (4) You should consider patients' families.

However, I have often seen the expressions "the victim's family" or "the patient's family". When you refer to "family", do you prefer to use the simple noun followed by the definite article?

More specifically, which is better, (3), (4) or (5), (6) when you write an essay or letter?

(5) You should consider the victim's family. (6) You should consider the patient's family.

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(2) is not an analog of (1): the child likes animals. Is this a joke or troll question? –  Pete Wilson Jan 30 '12 at 14:56
    
I'm serious. I'm not a native English speaker, so the example I provided might be awkward. (2) should have been "the child likes animals". –  foolnloof Jan 30 '12 at 15:36
    
Although I'm serious, but this question may be foolish for native English speakers. If so, would you please tell me which is more natural, (3), (4) or (5), (6)? –  foolnloof Jan 30 '12 at 15:45

4 Answers 4

When making global generalisations like families have 2.4 children you cannot use the because that would then refer to a specific set of families e.g.

The families of your forefathers had battered Mars bars for dessert.

And you can't use the singular, family, because that is grammatically incorrect, since you are referring to all families, which is plural.

With regard to the victim's family, that is not a generalisation. It's grammatically the same as saying the victim's face. Family in this case is a noun that is being possessed (in the linguistic sense) by the victim, and since a victim only has one family, then family is singular.

On the other hand, in the victims' families, families is plural because there is more than one victim (note the position of the possessive apostrophe, after the s).

As to which is better for your essay, patient and victim are not synonymous, so it would depend on what you were talking about.


With regard to your comment:

If you want to say something about how victims' families are in general, it would be more intelligible to use the plural and zero article.

Victims' families are not infected

Is better than

A victim's family is not infected

because it sounds less stilted.

It's better than

The victim's family is not infected

and

The victims' families are not infected

because the victim's family and the victims' families are terms usually used to refer to a specific victim or set of victims, not victims in general. It can be used as a generalisation, but this creates a lot of ambiguity and confusion, so should be avoided.

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Thank you. My question seems to be vague again. You use "the + single noun" when you refer to generality, as in "The lion is a dangerous animal", which means "Lions are dangerous animals". Do you use "the victim's family" in the sense of "victims' families", generality? –  foolnloof Jan 30 '12 at 15:57
    
I've updated my answer –  Matt Эллен Jan 30 '12 at 16:11
    
Perhaps you intend "battered Mars bars for dessert" to be amusing, which it is, +1, but also distracting and irrelevant, -1. Also, "Because the victim's family and the victims' families are terms usually used to refer to a specific victim or set of victims, not victims in general" is a fragment, not a sentence. –  jwpat7 Feb 2 '12 at 5:44
    
@jwpat7 it is relevant: I am giving an example sentence where the families is not a generalisation. –  Matt Эллен Feb 2 '12 at 9:04

"The victim's family" implies one victim, one family. "The victims' families" implies more than one victim with more than one family. "The victim's families" implies that one victim has more than one family (step-family, adopted family, etc).

In standard English, saying "The bear eats meat" (speaking of bears generally) is usually reserved for things like nature documentaries, while the more general "bears eat meat" is used in conversation. In other languages, this use of the present simple can seem strange.

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I didn't notice your comment. I got it. Thank you. –  foolnloof May 10 '12 at 13:05

I can't think of any situation in which you could use the victim's family analogously to 'The lion is a dangerous animal', so the question of singular or plural doesn't arise. If you say "Judges should remember not only the sentencing guidelines but the victim's family", you must logically be speaking of the family of the specific victim, since different families will have different views. 'The victim's family stand in the box at the back left of the court' is the closest, though I don't believe it is the same usage.

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2  
How about "In general, judges should consider the victim's family when sentencing." –  Matt Эллен Jan 30 '12 at 17:04
    
I don't understand why you mention 'The lion is a dangerous animal'. In other words, your answer appears to start off with an inane and irrelevant comparison. Also, the last sentence is missing in action; its form is 'x' is the closest, though I don't believe it is the same usage, but should instead be 'x' is the closest to y, though I don't believe it is the same usage as z. That is, you haven't specified y or z and it is not obvious what you meant them to be. –  jwpat7 Feb 2 '12 at 5:36
    
@jwpat: I use that comparison because OP says specifically (on Matt's answer) that that is what he had in mind, so it is really not irrelevant. And the comparison is continuing the same point; it is obviously possible to use the phrase the victim's family in English, and this is the closest way I can think of to OPs example (though, as I say, I don't believe it's the same). –  TimLymington Feb 2 '12 at 10:02

There are two kinds of generalizations going on here, I think. It would take more context to decide, though. Both forms (plural and singular) can be used for generalizing, though:

The plural works if you are talking about all patients and their families collectively:

In setting healthcare policy, you should consider patients' families.

The singular (with the definite article) works if you are using a hypothetical patient and family to stand for all:

In setting healthcare policy, you should consider the patient's family.

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