Generic Meaning

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Generic Meaning

I remember when I started learning that nouns have generic meaning.  Initially, I was confused and somewhat startled. How could that be?  Nouns are definite and indefinite. And then I started seeing generic meaning all around me.  I had to leave denial behind and recognize that the distinction between generic and specific meaning for nouns was a useful and accurate analysis of English.  I still struggle with applications in the real world but I am closer to being able to give coherent explanations than I was 15-20 years ago.  I mention this long learning curve because I think that we have to accept as scholar-teachers that we will learn some things quickly and other things slowly and other things will remain mysterious but worthy of study.

To me, one of the pleasures of studying grammar is finding analytical tools that help me to learn more about things that I'm already doing as a native speaker--becoming aware of features of English that I use without conscious thought. 

In these years of teaching English grammar for ESL/EFL teachers, I've found that many of you are also initially startled and somewhat confused by the specific/generic analysis of noun phrase meaning--and article/noun combinations. My experience is that, as we go along, you will become more comfortable with this new insight and very much aware of the value of the distinction for us as ESL/EFL teachers.

In another section of this lecture, I talk about the learning-teaching difficulty-ease matrix.  The English article system is the clearest example of a grammatical category that is difficult to teach and difficult to learn.

Nouns & Articles for Generic Meaning

Rather than looking at the article+noun system as a whole at this point, let's just focus briefly on generic meaning.  Look at these examples:

1. A computer is a machine.

2. Computers are machines.

3. The computer has changed modern life.

4. Life wouldn't be the same without computers.

These sentences are about members of a group or some whole.   Even the first example isn't about a particular instance.  It's not the computer on my desk but a single instance that represents the whole category.  Sentences 1-3 use count nouns for generic meaning; sentence 4 uses a noncount version of the noun life for generic meaning. 

Use of Generic Nouns in Context

Douglas Biber and Susan Conrad, two of the authors of the Longman Grammar, have written about what they call "seemingly synonymous words."  They have shown how the adjectives big, great, and large are used differently in academic writing from in fiction. Their point is that when a language has forms that seem to be synonyms--the forms are likely to be used in different ways in different settings.  One can't just be substituted for another without a change in meaning or a violation of style.  A big toe isn't the same as a large toe.  And I don't think I know what a great toe might be.  Or, for another example, a political scientist would call Georgia a large state but not necessarily a great state.  But a politician from Georgia is likely to talk about the great State of Georgia.

A similar process is at work with the use of these generic forms in context. We have a set of sentences that seem to have very much the same meaning.  It is probable that the uses of these forms do not entirely overlap.  However, we do not yet have a complete picture of how generic forms are used.  But the use of computers for linguistic research is a new field, and we get more information all the time. 

Here are some things that we do know about these generic noun phrase types when they are used in context:

1. The + singular: The computer has changed modern life. 

This form is considered more formal than the others--and is not as likely to be used in conversation as the plural noun: Computers have changed modern life

Master (1987) found in the sample that he analyzed that this form with the was often used to introduce at topic--and came at the beginning of a paragraph and in introductions and conclusions.

2. Zero + plural: Computers are machinesComputers have changed modern life
Probably the most common form for a generalization.  It can be used in all contexts--including both conversation (Basketball players make too much money) and academic writing (Organisms as diverse as humans and squid share many biological processes). 

Perhaps used more in the hard sciences and social sciences than in the humanities. 

3. A + singular: A computer is a machine
This generic structure is used to refer to individual instances of a whole group and is used to classify whatever is being discussed.

The form is often used for definitions of terms. 

It is also often used to explain occupations.  My sister is a newspaper reporter.  I am a teacher

Use is limited to these "classifying" contexts.  Notice that this form can't always be subtituted for the other: *Life has been changed by a computer.  *A computer has changed modern life. 

4. Zero + noncount: Life has been changed by the computer. 
The most basic meaning and use of noncount nouns is generic--they are fundamentally about a very abstract level of meaning.  Thus, the most common use of noncount nouns is this use with no article for generic meaning. 
Zero Article and Generic Meaning

Most nouns without articles have generic meaning.  Two types are involved.

1.  Zero + plural: Computers are machinesComputers have changed modern life.

2. Zero + noncount: Life has been changed by the computer. 

Generic Nouns in Context: 

A Sample from an Undergraduate Psychology Textbook

Here's part of the same passage again that I used in the lecture section about noun classes.  The writer uses a mixture of generalization (with generic nouns) and specific statements that expand the generalization or provide an example of it. 

from an undergraduate psychology textbook

Organisms as diverse as humans and squid share many biological processes.  However, their unique behavioral capacities depend on the differences in their physiological makeup.  You and I have a larger repertoire of behaviors than the octopus in large part because we come equipped with a more complex brain and nervous system. 

Let's make a list of all the generic nouns that we see in this passage. 

As a reminder, here's the chart from the topic of this section, with a bit more information added:

1. A + singular noun: A computer is a machine.

2. Zero + plural noun: Computers are machines.

3. the + singular noun: The computer has changed modern life.

4. Zero + noncount noun: Life wouldn't be the same without computers.

Zero + plural nouns organisms
many biological processes
many psychologists
many cells
stars in our galaxy

A + singular a larger repertoire of behaviors
a more complex brain and nervous system

the + singular the octopus

Zero + noncount Nothing in this sample.

Would you like to try analyzing some nouns yourself? 

You can try analyzing generic nouns from a passage from a sociology textbook by clicking here.  You do not have to do this quiz at this point.  I have placed a link to it from the exercise page for this session--so you can try it later if you would like.

Generic Nouns in Context: Patterns of Use

Rather than starting our work with ESL/EFL lessons and materials by explaining the differences between generic and specific nouns, I now think we might more effectively start by focusing on different types of communication that require the use of generic or specific nouns.

That is, generic nouns are often used in generalizations and statements of theory and definitions of terminology.  As a result we can build lessons where students read and write about science or the social sciences--and analyze the language used and then use similar language in their own writing to carry out tasks based on what they have read.

That is, specific nouns are often used in examples and narratives (not just fiction but history and the use of historical examples in scientific text).  As a result, we can build lessons where students read and write a variety of narratives for a variety of purposes and learn to use specific nouns in those contexts.

We teach the grammar as a necessary component of the kind of communication that the students need to carry out.  We teach the grammar in contexts of use rather than as abstractions. 

Please send me your questions and comments at  Thanks.


Allan, K. (1980). Nouns and countability.  Language 56(3), 541-567.

Celce-Murcia, M. and Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). 2nd Ed. The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher's Course.  Boston: Heinle & Heinle. 

Master, P. (1990).  Teaching the English articles as a binary system. TESOL Quarterly 24 (3), 461-498.

Master, P. (1987).  Generic the in Scientific American. English for Specific Purposes 6(3), 165-186.