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Frankfurt International School's ESL website says:

  1. You use a plural count noun with no article if you mean all or any of that thing.

    • I don't like dogs.

    • Do they have children?

    • I don't need questions. Give me answers!

I don't understand what "all or any of that thing" means.

The above guideline makes sense in general sentences such as

  • "He likes apples" (He likes all the apples in the world) or
  • "He doesn't eat apples" (He doesn't eat all the apples in the world).

But, what about specific sentences?

Let say, there is a man. He has 3 apples with him, he is holding an apple and eating that apple. The other 2 apples are on the table. We can say:

  1. "He is eating some apples" This sounds ok.

  2. "He is eating 3 apples"
    This could be wrong because he may eat up to 3 apples but he may eat only 1 and then stop eating.

  3. "He is eating apples"
    This could mean "He is eating all apples in the world"

The above rule is ok for sentences that refer to general things such as "He likes apples" or "He doesn't eat apples". But is that rule ok for sentences that refer to specific things such as;
"He is eating apples." (not pears, or oranges) and "I ate apples yesterday"?

Does the above rule only apply to certain sentences?

  • 3
    This is probably better suited on ELL.SE, but this rule refers to things in the abstract, not when you actually have a number of said item in front of you. – Azor Ahai Jun 29 '17 at 23:58
  • 'You use a plural count noun with no article if you mean all or any of that thing' doesn't mean the same as 'If a plural count noun with no article is used, all or any of the thing referenced by the noun must be meant'. 'You use pliers if you are getting nails out' doesn't mean 'If you are using pliers, you must be getting nails out'. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 30 '17 at 0:05
  • You think that anyone is "eating all apples in the world"? – Yosef Baskin Jun 30 '17 at 3:12
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    "He is eating apples" This could mean "He is eating all apples in the world" -- could, but it doesn't, and such a construction is obtuse. This is an "any" instance, where you don't care exactly which apples he's eating, merely that he is eating some apples. To say it could mean all apples is absurd. – Andrew Leach Sep 1 '17 at 0:02
  • Possible duplicate of Can anyone explain the use of determiners in this passage? – Mari-Lou A Feb 8 '18 at 15:02
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Zero article with plural count nouns may have generic or indefinite reference according to the predication (Source)

Frogs have long hind legs. (generic = all frogs)

He catches frogs. (indefinite = an indefinite number of frogs)

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The OP's questions are:

Does the rule (5. You use a plural count noun with no article if you mean all or any of that thing) only apply to certain sentences?

Is that rule ok for sentences that refer to specific things such as "He is eating apples"?

My answer: Yes, this rule only applies when talking generically in utterances such as I don't eat apples or Do you like cats?.

When you are referring to a specific subset of that item, as implied by the statement He is eating apples, then you need to apply articles rule 4 on the same webpage you link to:

You use the with count nouns ... when the listener already knows what you are referring to.

Imagine a context in which I phone a friend and ask what her brother is doing. A reply with the definite article He is eating the apples implies that I know which apples are being referred to. For example, they are the ones I had picked from the tree in my garden and given to her the day before.

A reply without the article (He is eating apples) refers to a specific subset. But the definite article is not used because I do not have prior knowledge about the specific apples to which my friend is referring. I would be mad to infer that he is eating all the apples in the world.


Disclaimer: It was me who wrote the grammar note about articles linked to in this question. It may, therefore, be helpful to provide information about the context and audience for the advice I give in the Articles page and other grammar notes.

I wrote the page on articles as one of a series of grammar notes for my beginning and intermediate ESL learners. I wanted to give them some basic understanding without using too much off-putting terminology. Hence what resulted was simple in both language and explanation. However, I did make this explicit in the introduction to the grammar notes:

Important: The rules on these pages will help you get started in your understanding of English grammar. Please realize, however, that English is much more complicated than can be explained in a few simple sentences. As you learn more, you will find examples where the simple rules shown here do not apply. Taking note of these exceptions or refinements will help you deepen your understanding of how English works!

http://esl.fis.edu/grammar/rules/intro.htm

And in the page in question about articles, I repeat this alert:

Note: This page contains short, generalized information about this enormously complex aspect of English grammar. For more detailed information, consult a good reference work such as Swan's Practical English Usage. And do not worry too much about article mistakes - only very rarely will they cause your listener or reader to misunderstand you!

With the above in mind, this question is probably better suited to the English Language Learners site.

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