For instance, I might say, "Overcrowding is a major concern in the classroom today" rather than "Overcrowding is a major concern in classrooms today". Is that substitution a literary device? The closest I can get is metonymy or synechdoche, which have similar functions but still don't match this specific kind of substitution.

  • I'm pretty sure that's just a form of synechdoche. The phrase "the classroom" is not substituting for "classrooms" though, but "schools" (which have classrooms as their parts). – Blckknght Oct 29 '18 at 0:08
  • Ahhhh! Good point, that does make more sense. – Miranda Oct 29 '18 at 0:09
  • It's still a good question. There might be a more specific name for a form that uses the specific structure "the X" to mean some larger thing that contains many Xs. Pars pro toto is a more specific term for a part referring to a whole (while synechdoche refers to both that and the reverse), but it's not limited to the "the X" form. – Blckknght Oct 29 '18 at 0:18
  • @Blckknght: It can be a form of synecdoche, but not all usages fall into that category. It certainly doesn't in literal sentences like "The camel is a beast of burden that can withstand heat and drought" or "The sea is rough today." (Contrasting with "Camels are beasts of burden" and "We are facing heavy seas today.") – Robusto Oct 29 '18 at 1:38
  • It's called the 'definite generic'. Professor Lawler's thesis is probably still the go-to treatment of generic usages. "Overcrowding is a major concern in classrooms today" is still a generic usage (the plural generic); it represents an unspecified (but substantial) subset of all classrooms (as does 'the classroom') rather than truly specified classrooms. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 23 '19 at 15:18

I wonder if substituting the article "the" in the second sentence isn't so much a literary device but a stylistic grammar choice. Omitting "the" before the plural noun (zero-article), "classrooms," denotes a generic class or kind, while "the classroom" is a sort of mix between a definite article and a proper article. In either sentence, though, the effect is slightly different: while both refer to the general, "the classroom" suggests an idea or ideal while "classrooms" suggests difference but ties them together by a shared characteristic (i.e. over-crowding). Nonetheless "the" is a super versatile article which can subtly change the effect and tone of any sentence.

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  • Welcome to our site. While these are interesting musings on the role of the article, you haven't addressed the question of what one calls this kind of substitution. Note that this site is a bit different from other Q&A sites: an answer is expected to be authoritative, detailed, and explain why it is correct - preferably by quoting a reference hyperlinked to the source. You can edit your post to add this detail; for further guidance, see How to Answer. :-) – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Oct 29 '18 at 0:49

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