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Our Professor said that : "A, an and the can all be used to indicate that a noun refers to the whole class which individual countable nouns belong"

which I didn't quite understood. doest that mean I can use a for example with the plural noun people if I'm talking about people in general? or what exactly?

  • No. People is not a group of individual persons. People is multiple persons. "A mob" is a collective group of individual persons. That's why you can use "a". Because class and mob are both singular nouns that describe a collection of countable nouns. – Hank Jan 30 '17 at 21:58
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    You can, however, use "a" with a singular noun to make a general statement about the whole class of individuals described by that noun. For example, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp" is a general statement about all men. – Andreas Blass Jan 30 '17 at 22:06
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    The professor left you hanging without examples, which drive the point home by breathing life into the rule. 'A people' is an expression to use rarely: "The Hindus of India are a people of gentle nature." 'A person' is used all the time. – Yosef Baskin Jan 30 '17 at 22:29
  • Your professor hasn't told you anywhere near enough about it. There are three types of generic noun phrase in English, with three different ways of approaching genericity. You can get references here, here, and here, among other places. – John Lawler Jan 31 '17 at 0:11
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The apple is an interesting fruit. [the entire class, general statement]

An apple a day is good for you. [refers to apple as a class, a fruit from the class of fruit known as apple]

Apples are good for you. [General statement with the plural]

Please note: in statements with an A, the same statement can often also be made by pluralizing the word. That is what your professor meant.

That said, the word people is irregular. It is not a regular countable noun and has specific rules. Because it has two basic meanings and can be used in different contexts.

If one says: a people, it means an ethnic or national group. It does not mean: The people you see in the street.

For example: The Hittites were a great people. The Ameridians of North American were once a proud people

Compare: The Hittites were great people. (Impossible to verify but that means they were nice people!)

Also, in everyday usage, the word people can take nothing: People in England drink tea. In that sense, it is for a general statement, and the word does not take a or the.

Also, for example, The people in the street are moving fast. Why /the/? It would imply you are talking about only those ones and not The people in the building. In that sense, it is specific. Here, the /the/ does not refer to the entire class of people. It refers only to the specific ones (in the street versus in the building).

General statements about people in the everyday meaning: no article.

General statements about specific people, everyday meaning: the, the people in the room (versus those outside it.), the people in this forum

General statements about people who "belong" to a particular place: the, The people of France are fed up with the situation. The /the/ is there because of genitive (of France, the ones who belong to France). Another example: The people of Athens were not all Athenians. Same idea.

That pretty much covers people except for the plural as in: The peoples of Europe have done some awful things to each other down through the ages. It is often seen in the Bible, too.

  • It is possible to be more precise (though not completely precise, because generalization is intrinsically imprecise). – John Lawler Jan 31 '17 at 0:13
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    I did say often. So, I did show The versus the plural. – Lambie Jan 31 '17 at 14:23
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I can use a, (for example), with the plural noun people, if I'm talking about people in general?

Not exactly. Use "a people" to refer to general groups of people that have distinguishing characteristics as compared to other groups. Example:

It will tell him that a people of one heart and mind never were conquered, and that where he cannot hope to divide, he never can hope to destroy.
- Arm, arm, ye Brave! or, a serious address to the People of England. (1803)

Which distinguishes that group of one heart and mind from other groups of many minds. Note that "the people" would only be correct if there were no other such group of people in the world.

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