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Am I right in thinking that it's possible and correct to use the zero article in contexts like this, when the meaning is general?

Even though in dictionaries it's presented as a set expression with the definite article?

For example, if we say "I don't want to wash the dishes" or "He washed the dishes", we will use 'the' because we mean a particular situation. But what if the meaning is general, for example, "He has never washed dishes in his life"? Would it be correct to use the zero article here?

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Yes, it's correct to use no article before a plural noun where the referent is dishes (or whatever the referent may be) in general rather than specific ones. I can't speak for what grammars tell you, but it definitely sounds correct to my American ears. "Everybody likes to eat french fries" is a general statement about french fries; "Everybody likes to eat the french fries" refers to specific french fries. Likewise, "Nobody likes to wash dishes" is correct; "Nobody likes to wash the dishes" can refer to specific dishes. However, because "wash the dishes" has become a set phrase referring to a type of activity even when specific dishes are not under consideration, it is not wrong to say "Nobody likes to wash the dishes" even when not speaking of particular dishes (though it is wrong to say "Everybody likes to eat the french fries" when not speaking of particular french fries).

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    I think you're on the right track with "wash the dishes" has become a set phrase referring to a type of activity even when specific dishes are not under consideration. But I think that including the article is strongly associated with doing the washing-up [in an unpaid domestic context, often what the "new man" does after his female partner has cooked and served a meal, on the dishes]. Without the article, Nobody likes to wash dishes is much more strongly associated with not wanting a menial job washing dishes in a restaurant or similar. – FumbleFingers Jun 25 '19 at 13:00
  • I agree with FumbleFingers insofar as the definite article with many domestic topics leads to the presumption that one is speaking of one's own household, that being the most obvious reference point: driving the kids to baseball practice is something dad does, driving kids to baseball practice is something the bus driver does; to prune the shrubs is to work in one's garden, to prune shrubs is to work in someone else's. – choster Jun 25 '19 at 13:23

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