I'm very confused about the use of English articles in generalisations with singular countable nouns. I read in a grammar book that in case of the word 'man' - the rule is that, if you want to say something that generally applies to all people, you use zero article e.g.,

Man need happiness.

So why do I come across sentences that apply in sense to all people in general, but are written with either the definite article 'the' or the indefinite article, 'a'? For example,

A man deserves a second chance
The man's duty is to work

So what's the rule? Or if you want to generally say something about a type of thing, not meaning a particular thing such as giraffe —you will say:

Giraffe is my favourite animal

It means that you like all giraffes in general, not one giraffe. In this case you put zero article. Fine. it's a countable, singular noun. But let's take another singular countable noun such as, computer. If you want to refer to computers generally you will not say 'computer' without the article, but instead the computer e.g.,

The computer changed the world

meaning that all computers generally changed the world. Let's take another singular countable noun— 'child'. To say that generally all children need love you will say:

A child needs love

In this case you will use the indefinite article 'a' ... so you see.. these are the examples of sentences I found and all of them are to give some generalisations with the use of singular countable nouns. Each of these examples have either 'a' or 'the' or zero article.. and now I'm really confused.. if anyone could help me , I'd be grateful a lot. :)

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    You'd be better off asking this on English Language Learners. – Robusto Mar 30 '15 at 19:39
  • @ewaef Yes, this is a very tricky and complex subject. I'm not sure there's any science to it, unfortunately. Sometimes "the" or even "a" refers not just to a single entity, but to the whole kind or class. Take this sentence: "The fastest land animal in the world is the cheetah." The sentence isn't referring to one particular cheetah (Ralph the cheetah or whatever) but to all cheetahs. It's a tad confusing. But consider the alternative: "The fastest land animal in the world is cheetahs." This sentence fails because "land animal" is singular but "cheetahs" is a plural. – William Bloom Mar 30 '15 at 22:33
  • (Continued) When we wish to refer to an entire species/kind/type, but put it in the singular, we use "the." – William Bloom Mar 30 '15 at 22:35
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    @Robusto: You're correct, but please let ewa ef leave the discussion here. This is something that vexes English language learners, but it's also a fascinating topic for enthusiasts, and I'd love to see what others here might have to say. – William Bloom Mar 30 '15 at 22:38
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    I'd warmly recommend leaving this question open due to the "fine" answer it received. Future questions concerning this particular usage can be directed here. – Mari-Lou A Mar 31 '15 at 2:30

You are confused, but that is not surprising: this is not an easy area.

First of all "man" is a special case (I will come back to this).

In normal speech, for general statements we normally use the plural without "the":

Lions are carnivores.

Computers need power.

Icebergs float.

There is a rather old-fashioned use of the singular with "the" to mean "a typical one", so

The lion has claws, a mane and a tail.

You will find this in old books, especially about animals and about nationalities and "races" of people, but it's not often used today.

You will find a similar use where you are not referring to a particular individual, but to a generalised individual which represents the entire collection of such items, or perhaps the institution, or idea, or effect of all the items:

The motor car changed the way we lived.

The mosquito has killed more people than any other cause. (I'm not saying that this example is true - it's just to show the construction!)

This construction is still in use, but it is more common in writing than in speech.

I said that "man" is a special case: it was used like "the lion" above, but without the article:

Man is a tool user.

Man has occupied every part of the Earth.

(The man is a tool user is grammatical, but cannot have this meaning: it is the usual meaning of the, referring to a particular man).

This use is much less common now, as most writers avoid using man to mean human being because it might be misinterpreted as male human being.

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  • It's an excellent summary of the basics, but I'd still rather see this on English Language Learners – FumbleFingers Mar 30 '15 at 23:05
  • @Colin Excellent answer, very clear, beautifully written. Incidentally, one of my favorite statistics is that mosquitoes are the most dangerous wild animal on the planet, killing more people than sharks, lions, bears, wolves, dingos, and rogue circus elephants, combined. (Far more.) – William Bloom Mar 30 '15 at 23:21

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