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I'm learning such difficult part of English grammar as Articles. So far I've already studied that articles are a mess and full of contadictions. Right now I'm learning this topic from several sources one of which is "Oxford English Grammar Course Advanced" by Michael Swan and Catherine Walter.

In Section 10 we can read:

... common English use of no article in generalisations ... :

Life is a dream.

A bit later:

We can generalise about people or things by mentioning one example, with a/an:

A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. (old feminist joke)

A baby deer can stand as soon as it is born.

Question one: why is there a contradiction between statements "no article in generalisations" and "we can generalise with a/an"? If we can, why doesn't anybody say "A life is a dream"?

Next, Longman Dictionary says that

'The' used before a singular noun when you are referring to a particular type of thing or person in a general way

The tiger is without doubt the most magnificent of the big cats.

The computer has changed everyone’s lives in so many ways.

complicated dances like the tango

In other sources, I read that the names of sports and sport events are usually preceded by 'the' article. Also, inventions like 'microscope', 'telephone', 'radio', etc. also preceded by 'the' article.

Okay. But question two: why tiger is used with the article?

Up to this point, I have several examples and I don't even know why some nouns are used with a/an article, some with the article and some without any article. If I apply all these rules at the time, it would seem that I can use any article for generalization or omit an article. But native English speakers don't do it. For some reason nobody says The life is a dream or A life is a dream, but many people say Life is a dream.

Question three: what is the definite rule of generalizations?

  • The thing is, you can't generalize about "generalization". (The term is being used in two slightly different senses.) – Hot Licks May 21 '18 at 22:07
  • (A slightly better rule for using "the null article" is to use it in the case where the noun is "uncountable". But that still gets kind of messy.) – Hot Licks May 21 '18 at 22:13
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    Both articles can be used in generic noun phrases. This is a special category of noun phrase that uses the articles for completely different purposes. As for why there is a contradiction, the unfortunate fact is that there simply is no general rule for English article usage. Instead, there are dozens of special cases where the articles are used to mark one kind of structure or another, and they all have to be learned individually, like German noun plurals or genders. Trying to follow a general rule leads nowhere. – John Lawler May 22 '18 at 2:19
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    I believe that you’re misreading your sources if you think that these are rules and that differences between them are contradictions. They are guidelines / patterns.  They describe things that you can do. If I say that you can buy a red car or a blue car, and that you can get from Point X to Point Y via Main Street or the back alley, I’m not contradicting myself; I’m just describing alternatives / options. It is difficult to explain which form makes the most sense in any particular context; I suggest that you just memorize the examples, and try to extrapolate from them. – Scott May 22 '18 at 3:13
  • Looks like this question is better suited to ELL.SE. Oh, wait, is it already there? Then it should be closed here. – André Levy Jun 21 '18 at 5:02
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I’m going to work through your example sets in reverse order.

First the general usage of articles: A/an vs. the.

A and an normally refer to a noun, but not a specific/particular/definite item from all available count nouns of that type. These are known as indefinite articles. https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/a-versus-an?page=1

“Grab me a Sprite, would you?” There are 5 cans of Sprite in the fridge and it doesn’t matter which can you bring.

The normally refers to a particular/specific/definite noun. This is the definite article.

“Would you bring me the Sprite from the fridge, please?” There are 5 cans of Sprite, but only 1 of them is chilled. The cold one is wanted.

How does this relate to your examples?

The tiger is without doubt the most magnificent of the big cats.

A tiger is a particular type of big cat.

I suspect what’s happening here is that wildlife shows (or whomever else is using this construction) tend to have implied words. When they say “The tiger is...” they really mean: “The tiger species is the most magnificent of the cat (Felidae) genus,” or something like that. But they don’t want to use any jargon words, so they simplify and it comes out slightly awkward.

Still the same rule, though. However, there would be nothing wrong with saying: “Tigers are the most magnificent of the big cats.” And that would probably be better.

The computer has changed everyone’s lives in so many ways.

Personally, I think this would be better: “Computers have changed everyone’s lives in so many ways.” I guess in the example there might be implied words in there like: “The compluter is an innovation which has changed everyone’s lives in so many ways.” And that would make it a specific type of innovation.

But I think this is bad style. Why? Because you’ll sometimes run into problems. People don’t like to be called “the disabled” and so forth. And the modern trend is to cut out unnecessary words and make the style more straightforward, and those read like an old-fashioned style.

complicated dances like the tango

This is the best of all these examples. A tango is a very specific type of ballroom dance. It is used most often with the definite article:

“They are dancing the tango.”

“They are dancing the waltz.”

Because it’s not just that a couple or some person is dancing. The specific dance is identified.

So let’s look at what the rule guide said about this construction with examples featuring the tiger, the computer, and the tango.

10 used before a singular noun when you are referring to a particular type of thing or person in a general way

1) First requirement is that the noun must be singular.

2) Second requirement is the same for any usage of the: you must be referring to a particular/definite item or type of item.

3) Third is that you’re using this specific singular noun to make a generalized reference (usually to the entire class that specific item belongs to).

Ok, so let’s go back to that first example and check it against this list of requirements.

Life is a dream

1) Singular noun? Not really. In this construction, it’s not talking about any one instance of life, but life as an idea. This isn’t my life or their lives or your life but just life overall.

It’s like time. (Not time of day or the time of the meeting, but time from the time-space continuum.) Or like gravity.

A concept that doesn’t have multiple instances on this world.

2) No for the same reasons as in 1).

3) Not applicable because 1) and 2) not met. Already a generalization.

Ok, second set.

A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. (old feminist joke)

A baby deer can stand as soon as it is born.

These fail on item 2). No specific woman, fish, bicyle, or baby deer (fawn!) is meant, so the definite article cannot be used.

If we substitute rule 2) with: Second requirement is the same for any usage of a/n: you must be referring to any one of a type of item (not a particular one).

Then it would meet all 3 rules.

Does that make sense?

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Life can be countable: cats have nine lives; "life is a dream" refers to the state of being alive, having been given life.

With perhaps too much imagination, I could see a desperate prisoner feeling deprived of life itself by his incarceration. "A life is a dream" could then mean that having any kind of life would be a dream because the speaker's present state indicates he feels dead. (Having) a life (any kind of life) (would be) is a dream. This isn't natural though. A vampire would likely say, "Being alive would be/is a dream."

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As you point out the words life and dream can refer to class, or when used with an article a member of or a subset from the class. "Life is a dream" is similar to "Tiger is an animal", that is every life is a dream, and incidentally there could be dreams which are not members of the class "life". "A life is a dream" implies a particular (though unspecified) life is a particular (though unspecified) dream. To me it emphasizes the membership of a life to the class of dreams.The emphasis may relate to the consequence of being in that class, as in "a life is only a dream", or may convey that the subject does not belong to some other class, as for example in "A whale is a mammal" to convey that it is not a fish.I think the problem in specifying a general syntactic rule is related to the fact that semantic context in which the sentence is embedded influences the grammar."A life is dream" sounds incongruous because a particular instance is being identified as a class. A contrived example where it may work is (I am not really sure of this) "For her, just a scale was music".

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Okay, I should thank John Lawler for his answer and extensive explanation. I strongly recommend to read his work for better understanding of generalization in English grammar.

I'll try to write a summary of his article.

For example, we have a generalization of a countable noun tiger:

1. The tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.
2. Tigers are in danger of becoming extinct.
*3. A tiger is in danger of becoming extinct. (INCORRECT)

In the sentence (1) we take some particular tiger as an example OR assume we have some prototype of tiger. Next, we assume that this information (is in danger of becoming extinct) is applicable for all tigers.

In the sentence (2) we talk about a group OR a class of tigers and also we claim that generalized information is a norm to a class of tigers. We don't say that all of them or most of them are in danger but some part of them are truly in danger.

The sentence (3) is semantically incorrect because in this case we take any tiger as an example and claim that being in danger of extinct is a required property for any tiger. In other words, it's mandatory for all tigers to have such property (being in danger). But it's not logically correct since every single tiger itself isn't in danger, but the species is.

So, all three options of generalization have slightly different shades of meaning.

Let's examine these sentences:

1. The tiger is a power animal. (being power is a property of tigers)
2. Tigers are power animals. (being power is normal for tigers)
3. A tiger is a power animal. (being power is mandatory for tigers)

So far so good. But what about this sentence?

Life is a dream

Why does nobody say, "A life is a dream"? As being a non-native English speaker, I can only guess this happens because in this context word Life is uncountable.

  • I'm glad you found some guidance from Lawler's article. However, if you want to ask a question about the word life, you need to do it in the question, not in your answer. So, you might want to edit your question, or write another one. Also, life is not always uncountable. For example: a cat has nine lives. – AmE speaker May 26 '18 at 2:11
  • strongly recommend reading his work – Lambie Jun 19 '18 at 18:19

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