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CHAPTER 15.  PLURAL COUNTABLE NOUNS

1. The absence of a determiner before plural countable nouns


The absence of a determiner before plural countable nouns generally has the same significance as the presence of a or an before singular countable nouns.

a. Making a general statement
When used in general statements, plural countable nouns are usually not preceded by determiners. The plural countable nouns in the following general statements are underlined.
e.g. Musicians must practise a great deal.
      Newspapers can contain valuable information.
      Larches are conifers.

A general idea can often be expressed either by means of a singular countable noun preceded by a or an, or by means of a plural countable noun not preceded by a determiner. For instance, in each of the following pairs of sentences, both sentences in the pair have the same meaning.
      Musicians must practise a great deal.
      A musician must practise a great deal.

      Newspapers can contain valuable information.
      A newspaper can contain valuable information.

      Larches are conifers.
      A larch is a conifer.

See Exercises 1, 2, 3 and 4.

b. Referring to something not mentioned before
Plural countable nouns are generally not preceded by a determiner when referring to something not mentioned before.
e.g. Branches blocked our path.
      Clouds were gathering overhead.
      Suddenly we saw buildings in front of us.
In these examples, the plural nouns branches, clouds and buildings are not preceded by determiners. It is assumed that the branches, clouds and buildings have not been referred to previously.

c. Naming a profession
When a sentence such as the following is used to name a profession practised by two or more people, the name of the profession is in the plural and is not preceded by a determiner.
e.g. They are doctors.
      My friends are electricians.
      We were chefs.

 

2. The use of The before plural countable nouns


a. Referring to something mentioned before
In general, the has the same meaning when used with plural countable nouns as when used with singular countable nouns. For instance, the is used with plural countable nouns when referring to something which has been mentioned before.
e.g. Fallen leaves covered the ground. The leaves rustled as we walked.
      In the orchard were apples and pears. The apples were nearly ripe.
      The doors opened, and students and teachers began leaving the building. The students were talking and laughing.

In these examples, the first time the words leaves, apples and students appear, they are not preceded by determiners, because the things referred to have not been mentioned previously. The second time the words leaves, apples and students appear, they are preceded by the, since the things referred to have already been mentioned.

See Exercise 5.

b. Referring to something when it is considered obvious what is meant
The is used with plural countable nouns when the speaker or writer considers it obvious which particular persons or things are meant.
e.g. The stars are shining brightly.
      The roses are blooming.
      We have put the children to bed.
      I was sitting on the front steps.

These sentences give examples of the use of the to refer to things which are particularly important to the speaker or writer. The expression the stars usually refers to the stars which can be seen from the part of the earth where one lives. The expression the roses might refer to roses in one's own garden, or to roses in which one feels a particular interest. The children might refer to one's own children or to children for whom one is responsible. The front steps might refer to the front steps of one's own house.

c. Names of nationalities
The is sometimes used with the name of a nationality in order to make a general statement about the people of that nationality. A plural verb must be used in such a statement.

When the name of a nationality ends in the sound of ch, s, sh or z, the name of the nationality must usually be preceded by the.

NationalityExample
  French  The French are famous for their fine wines.
  Irish  The Irish are known as poets and songwriters.


When the name of a nationality does not end in the sound of ch, s, sh or z, the letter s must be added to the end of the name when it is used in a general statement. Names of nationalities to which s has been added are often used without being preceded by the.

NationalityExample
  Argentinian  Argentinians like to eat beef.
  Canadian  Canadians have a tradition of playing hockey.


d. Adjectives referring to classes of people
Adjectives such as rich and poor can be used with the in order to refer to a group of people as a class. A plural verb must be used.
e.g. The blind attend special schools.
      The poor do not own their own homes.
      The rich often married for money.
In the above examples, the blind has the meaning of blind people, the poor has the meaning of poor people, and the rich has the meaning of rich people.

The following table summarizes the most important uses of the determiners a, an, and the with singular and plural countable nouns.

The absence of a determiner and the use of A, An and The before countable nouns


UseSingular Countable NounsPlural Countable Nouns
  A weakened form of One  a/an 
  Naming a profession  a/an  no determiner
  Making a general statement  a/an  no determiner
  Something not mentioned before  a/an  no determiner
  Something referred to as a class  the 
  Something mentioned before  the  the
  When it is obvious what is meant  the  the
  Nationalities ending in ch, se, sh    the
  Adjectives referring to classes of people    the


See Exercise 6.

 

3. The use of The with proper nouns


a. Names of people
In English, names of people in the singular are not usually preceded by a determiner.
e.g. Washington was the first president of the United States.
      Jack and Eleanor saw the movie.

Determiners are also usually not used when a title precedes a person's name.
      Doctor Defoe has a good reputation.
      Mr. Carpenter is a friend of ours.
In these examples, the titles Doctor and Mr. are not preceded by determiners.

However, names of people in the plural are usually preceded by the.
e.g. The Smiths live in that house.
      I have known the Harrisons for years.

b. Names of places
In English, the is usually used before the following types of place name:

    Type of Place Name
      canal
      desert
      ocean
      river
      sea
      plural place names
      place names containing the word of

The following are examples of names of canals, deserts, oceans, rivers, and seas:
e.g. the Panama Canal
      the Mojave Desert
      the Atlantic Ocean
      the St. Lawrence River
      the Beaufort Sea

The following are examples of plural place names:
e.g. the United States
      the British Isles
      the Great Lakes
      the Rocky Mountains

The following are examples of place names containing the word of:
e.g. the Gulf of Mexico
      the Cape of Good Hope
      the Bay of Biscay
      the Isle of Wight

Other types of place name are usually not preceded by determiners. For instance, determiners are usually not used before the following types of place name:

Type of Place NameExample
  lake  Lake Superior
  island  Manhattan Island
  mountain  Mount Rainier
  park  Yosemite National Park
  city  Boston
  street  Main Street
  country  Canada
  state  Kansas
  province  Nova Scotia
  county  Halifax County


See Exercise 7.

 

4. Nouns used only in the plural


Some English nouns are usually used only in the plural. Such nouns take a plural verb, and generally have a plural form. For instance, the following nouns, which all refer to objects with two parts, are usually used only in the plural:
e.g. jeans
      pajamas
      pliers
      scissors

If it is desired to refer to such objects individually, the expression pair of is often used.
e.g. a pair of jeans
      a pair of pajamas
      a pair of pliers
      a pair of scissors

When the expression pair of is used as the subject of the verb, the verb must agree with the word pair.
e.g. Jeans are fashionable.
      A pair of jeans is expensive.

      Pliers are very useful.
      A pair of pliers is often useful.

In the above examples, the nouns jeans and pliers take the plural verb are, and the noun pair takes the singular verb is.

See Exercise 8.

 

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