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Lets's say we have a simple sentence about a fact that always (almost) applies, such as: 'Birds make their nests on the trees'.

There is no article before 'Birds' as it is a generalisation. What about the other nouns? Could we just say: 'Birds make nests on trees', as all the nouns are referred to generally?

Do we always need an article when talking about positions, such as 'Under the bed' or 'On the table'? Or could one get away with saying just 'You should never sleep on tables'?

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    Birds make nests in trees, not on them. – tchrist Mar 15 '15 at 16:42
  • "Under the bed" is slightly different, in that most bedrooms have only one bed, so if sleeping underneath is what you habitually do, you might say, "Wherever I'm staying, I always sleep under the bed". "THE bed" because it's THE bed in whichever room you're staying in. But in general, you're right: "You should never sleep on tables", "I always jump over puddle|" doesn't need 'the', and would sound odd if you put it in. – David Garner Mar 15 '15 at 17:08
  • What you call "a simple sentence about a fact" is a Generic Sentence. It is not a simple construction; trust me on this. For instance, "always (almost)", while clearly only approximate, is incorrect; if Bill's daughter walks to school is true, then she walks almost every day. But if Bill's dog bites is true, how often does the dog bite? Once is enough. And why is He drives a truck different from He drives an SUV? These are so complex that we use a completely different construction -- He's driving an SUV to refer to real present time. – John Lawler Mar 15 '15 at 18:30
  • As usual, @John Lawler, you've told us that it's more complicated than we think - thanks again. – David Garner Mar 15 '15 at 19:48
  • "Birds make their nests on branches" is also fine – Plato Apr 6 '15 at 22:50
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Furthermore, you can't say 'Birds make nests in the trees' because Birds is indeed a generalisation, but 'the' is a demonstrative in all but name - it points to the particular trees we both have in mind. General birds can't sleep in unspecified particular trees. They can sleep under the bed, though, as David Garner says, because there is only one relevant bed. You could say 'Birds make nests in the World Tree' (it would be false, but grammatical) because again there is only one possible tree.

  • You can say "birds make nests in the trees", in the right context. "Our garden is full of wildlife: bees take pollen from the flowers, and birds make nests in the trees". We're being specific about the trees (and flowers), but general about the birds (and bees). – IanF1 Mar 30 '15 at 6:48
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Basically, as you may have learned, you don't use an article in English when you're making a generalization. But if you want to be specific, then you use some kind of article.

General: Money doesn't grow on trees.

Specific: Remember the robins we saw in the front yard last week? I saw the mama robin today, sitting on some eggs in a nest in the rose bush at the edge of the driveway!

General: I like apples.

Specific: I liked the apples I bought last week better than the batch I bought yesterday.

I wouldn't get too hung up on position. Just focus on whether you're being general or specific and you should be fine.

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