I have found the following sentence in "The Catcher in the Rye".

If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies.

As far as I know one should use zero article before plural generics. Why does the hero use "the" before "movies"? Is this just a mistake?

Are there cases when one can use "the" before a plural generic?

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In most cases, you'd be right: the definite article indicates that the following noun has been introduced previously or is in some other way within the semantic ‘scope’ of the discourse.

This is a somewhat special case, though, since the movies (apart from just being the definite plural of ‘movie’ as in the movies I rented last week are overdue) has a separate and specific meaning: cinema(s).

If you go to the movies, you are specifically not watching a movie at home, but in a movie theatre/cinema. In this sense, the movies is an originally synecdochical reference to the movies watched there, but it serves now as a simple reference to cinemas—often with singular agreement:

The movies is my favourite thing in the world!

So here, the character could just as well have said:

If there's one thing I hate, it's cinemas.

(Note the lack of an article when using a different word.)

It just happens that, for whatever reason, the movies was lexicalised in the definite form alone. “If there's one thing I hate, it's movies” is of course also a perfectly correct sentence, but it means something slightly different.

  • Can you substantiate your claim that the movies is synecdochical? While I agree it could be, it would certainly differ from my and my parents' experience. They and I certainly referred to "the movies" as distinct from the cinema, as in "I went to the open-air movies" (quoting from late 1930's). – andy256 Mar 22 '14 at 0:43
  • It is synecdochical in the sense that it refers to a place, named after the event that takes place there. It is not a true, classical synecdoche, since it is not a literal part of the whole that is referenced; but I don't know of any more specific word for this type of metonymy. Whether cinema, the movies, and movie theatre are exact synonyms is beyond the answer I gave—I was merely emphasising that the movies here refers to more than simply the recorded images on strips of film: it is a place, and even a culture. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 22 '14 at 0:53
  • Ok. I understand your point, but disagree. It's not the way the movies came about, from my knowledge, in AE or BE. Always willing to recant in the face of actual evidence, though :-) – andy256 Mar 22 '14 at 0:58

I think the term the movies has become idiomatic, and in that sense, it is generic of movies in general; but it may be a mistake to call this a universal rule. Generally speaking, the generic plural comes anarthrous (no article), and the generic singular comes indefinite (with the indefinite article a), although in rare instances the definite generic singular (with the definite article the), is also used.

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  • @Kris I fail to see how this contradicts anything I said in my answer. – Brian J. Fink Mar 22 '14 at 21:59
  • Why does it have to contradict? When there's an authentic source of information, you don't have to still "think" but cite the source instead. Opinions are not answers. HTH. – Kris Mar 24 '14 at 6:35

It is not a mistake; it is dialog. Holden Caulfield was not written to sound like a perfect adolescent with perfect grammar, not the character's style.

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    There is nothing wrong with this quote, neither in style nor in grammar. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 22 '14 at 0:22

I'm sure others will post more erudite answers, but examples are

I hate the thieves / bastards / cows / dogs. I like the cats.

It occurs where we treat a collection as one thing.

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    There's nothing about this that is “one thing”. Your examples are also all irrelevant to the question, since they are normal cases where the article removes the genericness of the noun. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 22 '14 at 0:21
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    @Janus Thanks for explaining. What "this" do you mean? The movies in the OP or the collections this answer? – andy256 Mar 22 '14 at 0:31
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    Both. They are all quite manifestly plural and not considered single/singular things. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 22 '14 at 0:38
  • Hmm. I believe that we are using the plural as the name of a class. In that sense, it's singular. – andy256 Mar 22 '14 at 0:48

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