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I've found this piece of text in the Android Developers Documentation:

A dialog is a small window that prompts the user to make a decision or enter additional information. A dialog does not fill the screen and is normally used for modal events that require users to take an action before they can proceed.

Please explain why they use 'the' followed by 'user', even though they don't talk about a specific user or 'the user as a class'.

  • I guess there is one user looking at the one screen where this prompt appears. Call him "the user". If a prompt appears on a big screen where many people are to respond, then (true) we would not say it is a prompt to "the user" but perhaps a prompt to "the users". For more on use of "the", you may consult ell.stackexchange.com – GEdgar Dec 2 '19 at 11:20
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    On the contrary, this is referring to the user as a class/set (ie is a generic usage). A definite 'the user' would refer to one just mentioned. It is only style / pragmatics considerations that make 'A dialog is a small window that prompts the user to make a ...' preferable to 'A dialog is a small window that prompts a user to make a ...' or 'A dialog is a small window that prompts users to make a ...'. There's a hint of 'Dear user, we're all in this mammoth task of cracking computer jargon together', 'the' being more 'intimate' (contrast 'the family' with 'a family' or 'families'). – Edwin Ashworth Dec 2 '19 at 11:40
  • It's getting a little bit clearer. But what about this?: "These classes define the style and structure for your dialog, but you should use a DialogFragment as a container for your dialog. " 1.THE style for your dialog 2. A DialogFragment as A container for your dialog. the first one i guess refers to the only one possible specific style of a dialog but the second one says me that a dialog could have more than one container. Every time a native speaker talks about something he think(unconsciously) about articles he have to use at a specific case. Is it true? – Alexander Dec 2 '19 at 11:55
  • Do not post text in the form of an image. It discriminates against people with sight deficiencies. – David Dec 2 '19 at 16:50
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As Edwin Ashworth said in the comments, this is, in fact, a case of generic usage. The user here refers to the 'prototype' of a user. Here is how John Lawler explained it on Ask A Linguist:

  1. Definite Generic: the + Singular Noun The tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.

  2. Plural Generic: 0 + Plural Noun [0 = Zero, the number] Tigers are in danger of becoming extinct.

  3. Indefinite Generic: a + Singular Noun *A tiger is in danger of becoming extinct. [normally ungrammatical]

These are constructions, which means that the phrase itself, and its usage, have special grammar and special meanings. It's not that the articles the or a have special meaning, really—they hardly have any meaning; rather, their use in these generic constructions marks them as special.

As to use and meaning, while there are many, many special cases and idioms, one can roughly equate the three generic noun phrase constructions with three different functions. Each refers to some species (of plant, animal, thing, person, cathedral, or whatever; not just biological species), but there are several ways of doing this:

The Definite Generic refers to the Prototype of a species, roughly the image we associate with tiger. The tiger, as a prototype, has all the properties of anything we would call a tiger, except that it doesn't exist in an individual physical sense, like all real tigers do. This is a very abstract concept, and its use signals that the speaker is theorizing.

The tiger is big means the speaker believes that "bigness", in some comparative context, is a characteristic property of tigers, that we should expect this to be true of any tiger.

The Plural Generic refers to the Norm of a species over its individuals, as perceived, of course, by the speaker, who is unlikely to have conducted tiger surveys, so the "statistics" here are very vague and impressional.

Tigers are big means the speaker believes that, on the average, any tiger is likely to be "big". This doesn't mean all tigers are big, though that's close. This is potentially a less abstract concept, since its use implies a generalization based on experience of several individuals.

The Indefinite Generic refers to the Definition of a species, that is, those properties that are absolutely necessary for anything to be a member. It doesn't work as the subject of any predicate that isn't definitional. But with a definitional property, it's certainly true for any member.

And that's one of the reasons why [the following] sentence is ungrammatical. If one says

*A tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.

one is saying that being in danger of becoming extinct is one of the defining characteristics of tigerhood, which isn't true, after all. Tigers would still be tigers if they weren't endangered.

  • Ok, I got it. But what if I write that documentation by myself, could I write "... prompts a user" instead of "prompts the user" implying ANY user of the app we gonna create? – Alexander Dec 3 '19 at 9:54
  • @Alexander In principle, it's fine. But: 1. there is really no practical difference in meaning; 2. if certain grammatical constructions are standard in a given setting, it makes sense to stick with them. No points for originality here; your readers expect certain grammatical constructions in this context, and any deviation from the norm in that respect results in added strain for the reader. – linguisticturn Dec 3 '19 at 12:08

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