When expressing a class of things, should I use a singular or a plural form?



When referring to a class of things, especially countable things, I am always confused about singular noun and plural nouns. For example:

Dogs are the most lovely animal in the world.


The most lovely animal in the world is dogs.

I know both sentences are grammatical correct because verbs only need to agree with the subject. However, those sentences sound awkward because of mixing singular noun and plural nouns.

So what is the best way to refer a class of countable things?


I have been suggested that I can use "the dog" to refer all dogs. So can the + a singular countable always represent a class of things?


Posted 2015-03-12T05:45:42.090

Reputation: 181

"I know both sentences are grammatical correct because verbs only need to agree with the subject." <== Er, you might want to wait for a decent answer, one that will most likely be written by a native English speaker. – F.E. – 2015-03-12T07:31:56.407

@F.E. I learned the rule of agreement among subject noun, verb, and predicate noun from http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/verbs-sandwiched-between-singular-and-plural-nouns which looks like a professional English grammar website.

– zx_wing – 2015-03-12T07:45:55.613

@zx_wing "Grammar Girl" (Mignon Fogarty) is not a competent grammarian. She teaches a style, one that is still rooted in traditional grammar and grammatical misunderstandings. The last I can remember, I think she had a B.A. in liberal arts or something like that. – F.E. – 2015-03-12T07:46:59.667

1@F.E. you are probably fifth who does not favor GrammarGirl! I must stop using that site as a concrete reference! Thanks :) – Maulik V – 2015-03-12T08:14:54.577

@MaulikV In the cases where she gets it wrong, I've found some good critical comments on her site that provide a correct/better explanation of the point(s) being discussed. But yeah, I definitely wouldn't recommend her as an authority on grammar. – pyobum – 2015-03-12T08:45:38.120

@F.E. could you suggest some good grammar websites? I like "Grammar Girl" because its articles have clear points about what they are talking about, unlike some websites just listing a bunch of examples. – zx_wing – 2015-03-12T19:53:18.040

@zx_wing As to general-use websites for learning standard English grammar, I haven't found any solid ones (other than blogs by professional grammarians). Most of them aren't maintained by qualified linguists. I've seen a bunch connected to universities, but their grammar level is mostly less than acceptable. The thing is, the people that know what they are talking about aren't going to have the time to write articles on grammar for those websites. The people who do contribute usually aren't aware of their own limitations. -- Though, there might be an existing meta-ELL thread with some links. – F.E. – 2015-03-13T03:55:11.743



When you're using a countable noun in the plural, further references to that noun should honor the plural:

Dogs are the loveliest (not most lovely) animals in the world.

In the singular, you would say:

Dog is man's best friend. (example: http://mashable.com/2013/03/12/dog-mans-best-friend/)

The + countable nouns is tricky. You'd typically use it when talking about a specific instance of the countable noun, not in general. So "the dog" isn't appropriate, since we're not talking about a specific dog. There are some cases where you use "the", for example - the Moon, the Sun, the equator. All of these words have plurals, but of all moons and suns there are some of special significance to us, and so we use a definite article there.


Posted 2015-03-12T05:45:42.090

Reputation: 2 122

So I can directly use a singular countable noun without any articles and determiners to represent a class of that noun? Like your example, or 'People like eating banana', 'Car is a good for long distance commute' ? – zx_wing – 2015-03-12T06:30:27.890

We can use the when referring in the singular to all members of a group. This is common in writing about a particular species: "The Asian elephant has four toes on the hind foot and five on the forefoot, while the African elephant has three on the hind foot and five on the forefoot."

– pyobum – 2015-03-12T07:26:08.783

@pyobum yes, there are valid cases where you can use "the", but beginning learners from many different language backgrounds tend to overuse it, and it's a mistake that's hard to correct later on. I'd rather they discover uses of "the" slowly over the course of time, and err on the side of not using it liberally everywhere. – RuslanD – 2015-03-12T08:19:08.740

@zx_wing I would say "Cars are good for long distance commute". In singular, I would say "A car is good for long-distance commute". As you can probably tell, there are situations where you'd use a/an, the, or nothing with a singular countable noun. It's not a simple explanation and I was trying to stay away from it. If you'd like, I can look for more complete rules around this. – RuslanD – 2015-03-12T08:21:46.180

I would say that native speakers do not in fact say things like "Cars are good for long distance commute". They would always use *commuting* in such constructions. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-03-12T14:40:34.133

@FumbleFingers good point, I was focusing on cars vs. car and missed that. – RuslanD – 2015-03-12T17:02:02.537

Also note the first comment when this question was originally asked on ELU: "The* dog is the most lovely animal in the world"*. The initial article is (idiomatically, if not grammatically) required in such constructions.

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-03-12T17:14:42.303

@RuslanD Yes please suggest more complete rules around this. I went multiple grammar websites about articles and determiners, they all tell you in what case you should use what, but none of them clearly state what I should use when I am intent to refer to a class of things either as the subject or the object. You see even in this comment I am hesitating whether to use the before 'subject' and 'object', or just to use them without any articles, or to use their plural forms. – zx_wing – 2015-03-12T19:47:52.077