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The usage or non-usage of article and number of noun is always a headache for non-native English speakers, particularly to Asians who don’t have the notion of article and number (singular / plural) in their language structure. I have read a half dozen of English grammar books specialized in the use of article in the past. Still usage of articles is in absolute limbo to me.

Recently I tried to translate the following poem of a famous Japanese poet, Horiguchi Daigaku titled ‘Stone speaks in silence’ into English:

石は黙ってものを言う

直に心にものを言う

雨に濡れて日に渇き

石は百年変わらない

流れる水に逆らって

石は千年動かない

as follows:

"Stone speaks in silence.

It speaks straight to my heart.

Wet in the rain, dry under the sun,

stone doesn’t change for thousands of years.

Resisting the flow of water,

stone doesn’t move a bit for thousands of years."

Of course, I have ‘stone’ here as a collective noun in mind, but I was at a loss to decide whether it should be ‘stone,’ ‘a stone,’ ‘the stone,’ or ‘stones.’

Did I put it right or wrong? If it’s wrong, what should it be? Why? What is a knack of deciding the use of article for collective noun?

By the way, the Scriptures say;

Jesus answered, "I tell you that if they keep quiet, the stones themselves will start shouting," - Luke 19:40.

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    If you mean stone as in the material, similar to wood, paper, steel, granite.... Then you’ve got it right. – Jim Jan 23 at 3:25
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    Yeah, in the order you listed you have "stone" the material, a randomly selected chunk of stone, a specific chunk of stone, or multiple chunks of stone. We can't tell which would be intended by the poet -- that's up to you to decide. – Hot Licks Jan 23 at 3:31
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    I think you did a good job! If there is no article and number in the original language, then I think the collective noun is a good choice. Let the reader decide. The point of poetry is its enigmatic nature, that calls the reader to... fill in the gaps. His heart sounds unmoving, to my ears! 🧝🏻‍♀️ – Jelila Jan 23 at 3:46
  • Further confusing the matter, you are anthropomorphizing it. This helps license dropping the article since we don't need to use articles with proper nouns. And conveniently, it is everywhere capitalized. So it isn't clear whether you are considering the Grand Canyon as stone, or some modest rock that you have been stubbing your toe on for years which you are calling Stone. – Phil Sweet Jan 23 at 4:50
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    I think stone, a stone, and stones all work here. The stone doesn't ... you can't use the stone here to stand for stones in general the way you can use the zebra to stand for zebras in general. It only works for living things and for certain complicated inanimate objects (for example, the cathedral would work). I don't know Japanese, but I'd guess that none of stone, a stone, stones convey the exact tones of meaning that the Japanese conveys. – Peter Shor Feb 23 at 15:13
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I read Japanese. Live in Japan. 1978 - Pres. Nicely translated.

The Japanese line 4: Poem states "hyaku nen" = 100 Years a stone won't change, but I've seen before translators to provide the original text the impact to an English mind, make it a 1000. Still, leaving it at 100 tells me, the author noticed for the longest human life time (100 years), the stone under these circumstances in the poem, does not change or wear away.

In that imagery, a Western mind will visualize "a stone," if the person stops to ponder, as if each one, or one off by itself sits patiently. Sit there alone for a 1000 years. With this, speaks in silence. Simply saying stone: As some posters already showed their mind, the visualization then is stone universally to them. Stone everywhere as all stone has this attribute.

...which might take way from impact, as I believe the author meant a stone. As if a person should just look at one, or the author is just pondering on one. Then each and every one of them, all speak like this. Up to you as you see fit or believe the author's mind to be.

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Even though some Asian languages don’t have articles like the English a/an/the, they may have determiners.

For example, you might have “one piece of stone” or “this stone”. These provide some clues to how generic or specific the reference is.

Generic references relate to arbitrary pieces of stone, or (arguably, slightly less generic) one non-specific piece of stone.

  • Stones are hard.
  • A stone cracks if hit hard enough.

The next step involves specific stones:

  • The stone in the park has been worn smooth.
  • Your stones have been delivered.

At the most specific, you are referring to Plato’s ‘Form’ rather than ‘Instance’ - that is, the ‘idea’ of a stone, rather than any actual stone. This can be conveyed using ‘the’ or (arguably, even more ‘specific’) no article. Note the use of the base case. It’s not really singular, but also definitely not plural.

  • The stone is a common metaphor.
  • Stone is hard.

These 3 categories are something of a continuum rather than crisp categories.

The scriptural example you cite likely referenced particular stones nearby, so they fall somewhere at the very specific end of the second category.

The “collective” stone of your poem sounds like a reference to the stone ‘Form’ (the term isn’t in common use these days, hence the inverted commas), so it should be left it in the base case with no article, as you have it. Putting it in the plural or using an article changes the meaning from the metaphysical stone to some particular rock or pile of stones.

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