Do we always use the definite article with inventions?

  1. The paper and the gunpowder were invented in China. (an example from my student's book).
  2. Paper and gunpowder were invented in China. (I've seen this sentence in quite a few British and American scientific articles).

Thank you!

  • Dan, perhaps you mean the INdefinite article...
    – user146059
    Jan 6 '16 at 14:30
  • 1
    That's not true. We use definite articles with uncountable nouns all the time. "The music of Beethoven was beautiful." Music is an accountable noun. "The paper used in newspapers is often recycled." In this example, paper is being used as an uncountable noun and properly has a definite article before it. Jan 6 '16 at 14:31
  • Uncountable nouns do not ordinarily take an article, definite or indefinite. Both of your examples @BenjaminHarman are qualified in a way that makes them countable - the music of Beethoven (as opposed to the music of Schubert), the paper used in newspapers as opposed to the paper used in books. In both instances I would much more naturally say Beethoven's music, book paper, newspaper paper ...
    – Dan
    Jan 6 '16 at 14:40
  • @Dan: First, I didn't say anything about what uncountable nouns "ordinarily" do. Second, the question isn't about countable or uncountable nouns. It's about whether or not one can use the definite article "the" with paper and gunpowder. Third, as I clearly explained, we can use a definite article with uncountable nouns. Doing so causes a shift in meaning, which was EXACTLY my point and THE point, while your ongoing diatribe about "uncountable" vs. "countable" is BESIDE the point. Fourth, giving me a downvote doesn't somehow make you right, just a bit of a jerk while still being wrong. Jan 6 '16 at 16:39
  • 1
    I suggest you not trust that "student's book".
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 7 '16 at 2:04

If an invention is countable (e.g computers) then you can choose to say either

"Computers were invented..." or "The computer was invented...".

If an invention is uncountable (e.g. gunpowder) then the definite article is not usually used.

"Gunpowder was invented in China;"

"Morphine is poisonous":

"Sugar is sweet";

"Paper is useful".

When uncountable inventions are listed with the definite article - the paper, the gunpowder, the morphine ... - this is usually because the simple uncountable noun has been qualified (either explicitly or elliptically) and made into a countable compound noun -

the paper-we-are-using... ;

the gunpowder-made-in-England... ;

the sugar-on-the-shelf... ;

the music-we-are-talking-about ;

the morphine-in-the-shop... .

This post is helpful https://english.stackexchange.com/a/198867/103961


We sometimes use the with singular countable nouns to talk in general about inventions and technology. This is optional and we often prefer to use ‘no article’ plus a plural or uncountable noun instead:

The wheel was probably invented around 10,000 years ago.

I think the computer has caused the biggest change recently in how we work.

Beckwith, S. (2013). 'A' and 'The' explained: A learner's guide to definite and indefinite articles (p. 40).


  • Both wheels and computers are countable. Both OP examples are uncountable nouns.
    – Dan
    Jan 6 '16 at 14:43
  • It doesn't change the fact that both options are possible. The question was: "Do we always use the definite article with inventions?" It's optional, as I've noted it in the second sentence of my answer.
    – Fae
    Jan 6 '16 at 14:48
  • You're right. Mea culpa. english.stackexchange.com/questions/198834/…
    – Fae
    Jan 6 '16 at 15:00

The word inventions isn't the deciding factor. What you are trying to say is.

The paper and the gunpowder were invented in China.

In the above, the works adjectivally to tell the reader that specifically that paper and that gunpowder being referred to in context was invented in China. For example, if I were working with fireworks and a child asked me where fireworks were invented, I might say, "Well, the paper and the gunpowder were invented in China."

Paper and gunpowder were invented in China.

Here you are talking generally. You are saying the product that we all know of as paper and the product we all know of as gunpowder were invented in China.

  • "The paper and the gunpowder were invented in China." Really?!
    – Dan
    Jan 6 '16 at 14:45
  • @Dan All you need is a reference paper and a reference gunpowder. "Imagine a basket of commodities. The paper and the gunpowder were invented in China, the morphine in Germany; and the muslin in Bangladesh."
    – choster
    Jan 6 '16 at 19:41
  • @choster - thanks, very helpful. But... isn't your sentence an exception. Except when listing where items were invented, doesn't a definite article with an uncountable noun always involve an ellipsis (the paper we are using, the gunpowder in that box, the morphine in the shop) which changes the simple uncountable noun into a countable compound noun? The OP asks if the definite article is always used with inventions. If the invention is uncountable the simple answer is that 'the' is not used. Gunpowder was invented in China. The gunpowder here was made in England.
    – Dan
    Jan 6 '16 at 22:07
  • @Dan That's what I mean by a reference paper. The OP hasn't actually given us any context, so we don't know whether the is appropriate or not here, but it's not right to say it's always wrong.
    – choster
    Jan 6 '16 at 22:19
  • Memo to self - "Never say 'never' or 'always': 'Almost always', 'usually', ordinarily'...". Thanks. I've deleted my excessive assertion!
    – Dan
    Jan 6 '16 at 22:25