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I know that the definite article "the" can be used to mean a generic idea of something as in "the lion is the king of the animals." In this sentence, the in "the lion" is used to imply the general image of lions, so not specifying a particular lion.

However, I am confused in identifying where a "the" in a sentence is used for a general idea or a specific reference. For example, in the sentence "the price of gas is soaring", I heard that "the" in the sentence is an example of the generic use of the. Although I can easily understand the generic use of "the" in the lion example, but I do not understand how there is an general idea about gas price. Soaring gas price is something real,and gas prices in different regions( in a hypothetical situation) can be different. So, if I say "the price of gas is soaring", do I mean the price of gas that is determined by the world's oil system or can I say "the gas price" even when I am indicating the state of gas price in "a particular region"?

I know it is even difficult to understand my question, but I hope someone could find what I am confused about and give an answer.

  • I'm used to seeing "the price of gas" used to refer to the price of gas "at the pump," on average, in an entire nation, in a state, or even in a local area. The standard way of expressing the global price of petroleum, I believe, is as "the price of a barrel of crude oil," where again the price is an average, but this time it is the average price on the world market. – Sven Yargs Sep 29 '14 at 7:53
  • Then, is it grammartically wrong to say "price of gas" without "the" in the same sentence? Why do we need "the" there? What is the function of the "the" there? – Huidong Im Sep 29 '14 at 7:57
  • The normal way to express "price of gas" is to include the definite article. Perhaps it helps direct the reader or hearer to the larger idea "the price of gas somewhere," though the somewhere may differ from one instance to another. But we would also say "the price of a cup of coffee at the Starbucks on 23rd Street," or "the price of freedom"—the first instance being extremely specific and concrete, and the second instance being highly abstract and general. So I don't think that the level of generality has much bearing on the appropriateness of the definite article in this setting. – Sven Yargs Sep 29 '14 at 8:09
  • Thank you for your answer. One more question. Regarding "The price of freedom", which one would you choose to be right between "The price of freedom in the country is very expensive" and "Price of freedom in the country is very expensive". In other words, with of-phrase, when do we add "the" before the noun preceding "of"? If both are right, what is the difference? – Huidong Im Sep 29 '14 at 8:29
  • { PRICE OF OIL .. "where again the price is an average, but this time it is the average price on the world market" To some extent there are really only about 3? (2?) actual prices of crude oil, it is only sold on very limited markets. There's WTI crude, and Brent crude, and so on. oil-price.net Anyway, for another forum. } – Fattie Sep 29 '14 at 10:15
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There are two issues at play here.The first has to do with the use of the with generic uses of noun. The second has to do with the use of the in phrasal genitive constructions.

Which unique genus?

Firstly, it's important to note that the generic use of the is actually very restricted, in that we only use it with a relatively small selection of nouns. We tend to use it with species of plant or animal. In these instances the noun must normally be in the singular:

  • The Blue Whale is the heaviest animal on the planet.
  • The Boabab tree is famous for looking as if it's growing the wrong way round with its roots reaching up to the sky.

We also use this with inventions in the same way:

  • The mobile phone has revolutionised modern life by destroying the quality of face to face communication.

Lastly we use it with adjectives that stand in for nouns in constructions like The rich, or The French.

Notice that these uses of the are only generic in the sense that we are using the singular noun to stand in for a genus of plant animal or invention. We then use the because the genus is unique amongst other genuses of animal etc. So when we say the lion, we don't really mean lions, we mean that one unique genus of animal, the lion.

We don't tend to use singular nouns with this sense of standing in for a specific genus of thing, with any other nouns apart from animals or inventions. For example, we can't do this with prices. The following can't mean that prices have risen:

  • The price has gone up every year for the last ten years. * (wrong)

With the animal example, the lion picks out a unique type of animal from amongst the entire set of types of animal. The generic use of the price here won't work because it is not clear what other entities price is being picked out from or distinguished from. Generic here doesn't mean general it means used to identify a GENUS of thing. More importantly it is used to indicate a specific genus. These Noun Phrases are not used to identify things in general. It's also important to note that it is not the definite article the here which is being used generically. It is the noun that's used generically. The the just does its normal regular job of indicating to the listener that they will be able to identify this unique thing.

Phrasal genitives

In the phrasal genitive construction Noun of Noun, we more often than not find a definite article used with the first noun. The reason for this is that the Prepositional Phrase of Y is being used restrictively, a bit like a restrictive relative clause, to explain which specific X we're talking about. The end result then is an X which, again, is uniquely identifiable by the listener. So for example, in any given conversation, if we haven't been talking about a specific CEO or a specific company, then we can't just refer to a specific CEO by saying the CEO has said that they guarantee..... By adding the Prepositional Phrase of Tesco, we restrict the possible referents of CEO to one unique and uniquely identifiable CEO:

  • the CEO of Tesco.

Similarly, if we say Republic of France, we have narrowed down the possible referents of Republic to one uniquely identifiable republic, so we use the definite article to indicate that this entity is uniquely identifiable to the listener:

  • the Republic of France.

Price, cost, weight height

Very often we use use nouns which give some kind of measurement or numerical index, such as weight or price to indicate an average weight, or a mode weight and so forth. For example, in the phrase ...

  • the weight of an adult in Australia

... we mean the notional average weight of an adult in the Australia. In order to understand how we get this reading for weight, we need to consider the genitive construction and how both of the nouns involved, X and Y are marked for definiteness or indefiniteness.

First of all, in the phrasal genitive construction, as described above, the Prepositional Phrase of Y is usually narrowing down the possible range of intended referents of the term X, to one identifiable referent (or group of referents if X is plural). This is usually underlined by the fact that we use the definite article, the. So in the phrase the price of oil, the phrase of oil tells us which price we're talking about. In other words it's not the price of beer, pencils, AK47s, baboons, ladders or clowns.

The Y part of this construction is a noun, and is therefore also marked for definiteness (read definiteness as meaning whether or not the listener should be able to identify a unique referent). If Y is definite, then we will see either a proper noun (name) or a noun marked with the. If Y isn't definite, then in the case of countable nouns, we will see a singular noun marked with the indefinite article a, or a plural or uncountable noun without any article at all.

In a construction like the price of gas, we have an X that is marked as definite. Price here denotes a numerical value. It has been marked as definite showing that we should be able to identify what price we're talking about. However, Y, in other words gas, is unmarked - there's no article here - indicating that it is indefinite. This means we are thinking about a definite price for an unspecified gas in general, not a specific amount or body of gas somewhere. This forces us into reading it as a specific price for gas in general, a notional average or common price.

The Original Question

How then do we determine whether the price of gas refers to the price of gas in a particular country, region, or globally. The answer is the same as it is for just about all nouns which are marked for definiteness. Definiteness belongs to the realm of pragmatics. If you say the book to me, what you're indicating by the is - you know which one I mean!. If you want me to identify a specific book as the intended referent, you must already have given me enough clues as to which book you want me to pick out! If you've just been talking to me about a book you bought yesterday and say the book, I know I should be able to pick out which book. The book you bought yesterday is the most prominent or salient in our conversation, so I'm going to pick out that one.

So, if we're talking about the economics of a particular country and the cost of living, then when we say the price of gas, our listeners are going to assume we mean the price of gas in that country. Similarly when talking global economics, the price of gas is the global price of gas. If the context does not make it clear, or is ambiguous, then we simply will need to modify the noun somehow. We to make it easy for our listeners to resolve the reference: the price of gas in the region, for example. Where articles and nouns are concerned, in terms of interpretation, context is king!

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    Thank you so much Araucaria. Your explanation is so useful that I feel so relieved as I feel like one of the things that have bothered be so long could be finally fully dealt with. Araucaria, I have one more simple but not simple question. In your explanation, you said "In the phrasal genitive construction Noun of Noun, we more often than not find a definite article used with the first noun." But I find some nouns do not have "the" in front of them even when they seem restricted by of-phrases. Simpler, "the removal of skin" and "removal of skin" are both shown. – Huidong Im Sep 29 '14 at 13:54
  • @HuidongIm Thanks for the interesting question. I'm glad you found my answer helpful. That makes me very happy. Thank you! :) – Araucaria Sep 29 '14 at 13:57
  • (this is the countinuing part from above) I know this is a kind of too generalized question. But If you could give me any hints, then it would be very helpful! – Huidong Im Sep 29 '14 at 13:59
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    the Baobab tree (0: – CowperKettle Oct 7 '15 at 4:45
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    I may have misunderstood you but you say that it's not possible to say "The price has gone up every year for the last ten years. (wrong)". Look up to your answer to see this. In fact, the sentence The price has gone up every year for the last ten years." is entirely and totally correct. – Fattie Apr 10 '16 at 22:43
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An indefinite article doesn't fit: A price of gas. The indefinite article implies there are more possible prices. It unwraps the little package labeled 'price of gas' and invites examination of the component parts.

The price of eating out is rising due to labor costs.

A price of eating out is not having money for nice clothes. Another price of eating out is poor digestion.

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