I have been having a trouble with the idea of the definite article meaning generic concepts.

Recently, I came upon a question asking which one is correct between " The Chines invented the paper" and "The Chinese invented paper.

All of the commentators said the second one is correct because you are indicating paper in general, which I totally agree with. But, the definite article "the" also has a function to indicate the generic concept of something as in "The lion is big". So I assumed using "the" in the sentence would be okay, implying the generic idea of paper not a specific kind of paper. But it apparently seems not right from English natives' perspectives.

So, I concluded that general things expressed by nouns with zero article and general things expressed by nouns with definite articles are different.

How are they different?

  • You seem to have a point there, after all. Since you already understand the significance of the definite article and the difference in meaning. Yes, we use the definite article in a different way in "The lion is (a) big (animal)." Have you asked on English Language Learners?
    – Kris
    Sep 29 '14 at 12:58
  • @Kris But this question is quite subtle, and of general interest to people seriously interested in English grammar, so I think it does need to appear here too! :) Sep 29 '14 at 13:15
  • This question is better asked on English Language Learners
    – Kris
    Sep 30 '14 at 9:41

There are two different issues here. The first is to do with the way that we talk about and think about inventions. The second are the grammatical features that allow us to use the X in this way.

The Original Poster is quite correct that we use the X to refer to inventions. This is sometimes called the generic use of the definite article. It should really be called the generic use of nouns - with the definite article. In the same way that when we say the elephant we are picking out the genus elephant from the set of all other genuses of animal, when we say the typewriter we are picking out the genus typewriter from all the other genuses of invention.

However, there is a constraint on this use of the with singular nouns to represent inventions:

  • The nouns must be SINGULAR, they cannot be uncountable!

Uncountable nouns cannot be used in the generic sense to represent inventions. Compare ...

  • The inkwell was invented
  • The book was invented
  • The Ford Fiesta was invented
  • The wheel was invented
  • The wig was invented

... with:

  • the ink was invented * (wrong)
  • the lemonade was invented * (wrong)
  • the artificial blood was invented * (wrong)
  • the fake hair was invented * (wrong)
  • the paper was invented * (wrong)
  • the artificial intelligence was invented * (wrong)

All of the examples above, because they are represented using uncountable nouns, can only refer to a specific amount, body or sample of lemonade, ink, hair, blood, paper or intelligence. If we want to refer to them as inventions we need to use them without an article:

  • ink was invented by ...
  • lemonade was invented in ...
  • fake hair was invented through
  • paper was invented long before
  • artificial intelligence was invented by bonobo monkeys working on humans in ...

Notice for example that we cannot say the paper to mean paper the invention, because it is uncountable. However, if we mean a newspaper, then newspapers are countable and this is fine:

  • The paper was invented ten years after the printing press.

In short, we can't use The X generically to represent inventions unless X is a countable noun!!

Aside from this very specific enquiry, the Original Poster's concept of when to use definite articles or not is spot on. We use the to tell the listener that they can readily identify the intended thing or person that the speaker is talking about. Otherwise we use a with countable nouns or zero article with plural and uncountable nouns. This indicates to the listener that they don't know which specific thing or entity the person is talking about. However, conventions for buildings, places, names, animals, inventions, diseases and so forth are very complicated. They're best studied and analysed individually - in my experience.

  • Araucaria, thank you for your explanation as always. I have one question. In your explanation, you wrote, "This is sometimes called the generic use of the definite article." In this sentence, you put "the" before "definite article". And I can see you putting "the" in this way a lot. I know that "the" is the sentence does not mean a specified definite article. Then, why didn't you just right "a definite article" or "definite articles". Or, is it also the generic use? Then,... you said the generic use of nouns with "the" is limited to animal, plant, inventions. Little confused! Thank you again!
    – Huidong Im
    Sep 29 '14 at 15:36
  • @HuidongIm So when I'm talking about definite articles there's two ways I can think. If I'm thinking about which word, for example I'm thinking about the or a or table, then these are three words. So if someone uses the 120 times in an article, I can say She used the word THE 120 times because I'm thinking athat each time she is using the same word. However, I could think about it so that every time she writes THE it is a different word... Sep 29 '14 at 15:54
  • Clear. Very clear. I have never had so clear an explanation like this. Could you answer my other questions too? They are all related. I put some examples too to clarify those questions.
    – Huidong Im
    Sep 29 '14 at 16:00
  • @HuidongIm ...If I think about it that way, I can say she used 120 the 's in her article. Likewise, if I write "the the", I can say I wrote 2 the 's or I wrote the word THE 2 times . When I think about the like one word, I'll say the definite article* - because how many definite articles are there in English? One! However, when I'm thinking in the way that every time I see the it is a different the or a new the, then I will say a definite article - because there are an infinite amount of the 's when you consider them all as different words. Sep 29 '14 at 16:00
  • I understand that is not a case of the generic use of nouns with the definite article "the". Just curious, is there any linguistics term for the function?
    – Huidong Im
    Sep 29 '14 at 17:14

You could say, "the Chinese invented the paper", but it wouldn't have the same meaning as "the Chinese invented paper".

As Mykolas Masaitis answered, it could be taken to mean that they had invented a specific variety of paper which has already been discussed. For example,

I have written you this letter on a special paper made from woven bamboo leaves. The Chinese invented the paper.

Though "the Chinese invented this paper" might be more usual in that context.

Another interpretation relies on the fact that paper has more than meaning in English. From wiktionary,

paper, noun
5. A written document, generally shorter than a book (white paper, term paper), in particular one written for the Government.
6. A written document that reports scientific or academic research and is usually subjected to peer review before publication in a scientific journal or in the proceedings of a scientific or academic meeting (such as a conference, a workshop or a symposium).
7. A scholastic essay.

These are all varieties of the same general idea - a paper refers not to the physical material, but more abstractly to the text that could be written on it.

So if you wanted to state that the Chinese had invented the concept of peer-reviewed academic research documents, you might say, "the Chinese invented the paper".


When one says "the paper" he means "that paper". So the listener must understand what a paper is meant here. When not, no article should be used.

  • Then, we cannot say "Global warming is killing the polar bear" when we are referring to polar bears in general? How about "People used to haunt the lion"? Should we also say "People used to haunt lions"?
    – Huidong Im
    Sep 29 '14 at 8:54
  • Why not? We surely can say "Global warming is killing the polar bear" and we can say "Global warming is killing polar bears" too. The phrases are almost equivalent. Sep 29 '14 at 8:57
  • This phrase is correct - "People used to haunt lions". You can't say "People used to haunt the lions" in that sence. Sep 29 '14 at 8:58
  • 1
    "People used to haunt the lion" could have two different interpretations. It could mean "People used to haunt lions". Or, if we've been talking about a particular lion, it could mean that people used to haunt that particular lion. Personally, I'm loving all the haunted lion examples.
    – tobyink
    Sep 29 '14 at 9:02

General :

Do you like cheese?

Specific piece of cheese, we can say:

Pass me the cheese please!

If there's a Chinese (version of) Paper, I would use-"the paper"

@Mykolas Masaitis answered- the means "that paper". So the listener must understand what a paper is meant here. When not, no article should be used.

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