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I'm wondering about the usage of the definite article in cases where the thing being referred to is an abstraction or generalization of some kind.

I'm aware of the most important rules for using the definite article and when not to use it. However, there seem to be cases not covered by the most commonly taught rules.

For example, is the following sentence grammatically correct?

This is what will be used during meal preparation.

The sentence omits the article before the "meal preparation" syntagm.

If this sentence was a part of a series of instructions which referred to a specific meal preparation process, then it would be natural to write something like this:

Place a pan on the stove. This is what will be used during the meal preparation.

However, when talking about meal preparation in general (like in this sentence), it is natural to elide the definite article. However, I feel like I'm doing this by ear without grammatical justification. Is, perhaps, preparation considered uncountable in this specific case? Why?

Is there a specific rule that governs this omission? Can you point me to a resource (a webpage or a book) where I could find all of the rules?

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  • Others may be able to point you to rules. I feel it a mistake to seek prescriptive rules for everything. Language is not defined by detailed recipe. Is the meaning clear, unambiguous, progressive? Does it transfer information from source to recipient? If the answers are yes, all is well.
    – Anton
    Mar 19 at 8:53
  • I understand that a language isn't governed by well-defined rules and that there are plenty of exceptions that cannot be meaningfully systematized. I was just wondering whether I was missing an obvious canon. If it's the case that this is merely a specific exception, then I can accept it as an explanation, but it seems to me that there is a rule for omitting the article in cases where the syntagm refers to something general.
    – Igor Ševo
    Mar 19 at 9:12
  • English tends not to use articles when discussing concepts as a whole; "meal preparation" in general would fall into this, as would discussion of philosophy, science, etc, but "the"/"some"/"a" etc are used with specific instances of the general. (You would say "Representation is an important concept in philosophy" if talking about philosophy in general, but "Representation is an important concept in the philosophy of Kant".)
    – Stuart F
    Mar 19 at 11:46
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Used in this sentence, "preparation" is an uncount noun (OALD). As, also, the use is generic, no article should be used: when-to-use-the-article-the-with-uncountable-nouns. However, you will find that a small minority do use the article; this can be seen from this ngram: during the meal preparation.

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Keeping "during" in the research text aims at not duplicating the results for "the meal preparation" in "meal preparation", and, as well, to provide a source short enough to be examined; otherwise,"during" has no incidence on the use of the article.

It can be checked from the meanings in the list that corresponds to "during the meal preparation" that most cases are generic and that, preferably, no article should be used, but, as said above, they represent a very small proportion; therefore, the findings correspond essentially to the rule. It is then preferable to go by the above rule (When to Use the Article THE with Uncountable Nouns).

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