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Why should I use the in the first case and a in the second?

The novel is the most popular form of fiction.

A novel is a long narrative.

My thoughts:

For the first case I could think of the rule:

Use THE with superlatives such as "the best", "the biggest", "the most important", "the least interesting", etc.

So it's necessary to use a definite article because of the most popular.

For the second case the relevant rule seems to be:

Use A(AN) when you are talking about a thing in general, NOT a specific thing.

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As you've probably discovered, the simple rule is that the definite article the refers to one particular thing while the indefinite articles a and an refer to an unidentified thing. Thus when we read

The critic panned the novel

we know the critic didn't like one particular novel named in his review. And for

I picked up a novel at the library

you know that I checked out some novel, but you don't know which one.

Unfortunately, things aren't always that simple. The definite article can mean the entire field of things under consideration, so for

The novel is the most popular form of fiction

you're talking about novels as an art form. The article doesn't have to associated with the superlative. For instance

The course will cover the novel from its beginnings in the early 18th century to the present.

The indefinite article may be used to refer to a representative singular to indicate the entire field as in your example

A novel is a long narrative.

Here you're not talking about a single book (like the one I checked out of the library) but any novel, and by implication all novels. In these uses, you may substitute the plural without changing the sense:

Novels are the most popular form of fiction.
Novels are long narratives.

With the "simple usage first mentioned, this isn't so. If I say

I picked up novels at the library

I checked out more than one book.

  • thank you very much for your reply! Besides simple usage: the - novels as an art form, a - representative singular to indicate the entire field. Does it mean that I may use either a, the or plural in both sentences? plural is possible for sure in both of them. – Konstantin Mar 16 '16 at 20:39
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    @Konstantin The simple answer is yes, but remember what happened with the last simple answer. You have to take context into account. If you've written a paragraph discussing Anna Karenina and then decide to make a general statement about the novel as an art form, your reader will likely be confused since the would seem to refer to the Tolstoy work. Context is everything. – deadrat Mar 16 '16 at 20:49

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