Generic nouns are nouns that refer to a thing in general (as opposed to one specific thing). For example, we say, “Books are windows into other worlds” instead of “One book is a window into other worlds.” We use generic nouns to discuss universal truths or make sweeping statements rather than describe one particular situation.
Of all the different types of nouns, generic nouns can be one of the most confusing. Many English language learners have trouble figuring out how or when to use generic nouns. So below we clear up the rules, including how to use articles with generic nouns and when plural generic nouns are appropriate.
What is a generic noun?
Have you ever heard a sentence that speaks very generally about a topic?
The heart wants what it wants.
People aren’t always at the top of the food chain.
“The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance.” —Benjamin Franklin
The examples above show nouns that refer to an entire group or a concept as a whole. These are generic nouns, which discuss a topic in general. Other types of nouns tend to represent specific examples, whereas generic nouns represent all examples.
[GENERIC NOUN] Chimpanzees are one of nature’s smartest animals.
[SPECIFIC NOUN] That chimpanzee just built a tool out of grass.
Generic nouns follow most of the grammar rules for nouns, but you still have to be careful how you use them. In particular, it’s important to know what separates generic nouns from other types of nouns.
Generic noun vs. proper noun
Proper nouns refer to a specific person, place, thing, or idea by its name or title. You can usually identify proper nouns because they start with capital letters. However, because they always refer to a specific thing, proper nouns do not overlap with generic nouns.
[GENERIC NOUN] The Beatles wanted an album cover of them walking down a road together.
[PROPER NOUN] Ultimately, they chose Abbey Road outside their recording studio for the photo.
Generic noun vs. common noun
Common nouns refer to people, places, or things without using their name or title. They are the opposite of proper nouns, and all nouns are either common or proper.
Technically generic nouns are common nouns, but not all common nouns are generic nouns. It’s easier to say that generic nouns belong to the group of common nouns.
[GENERIC NOUN] Cats get hyper at 2 a.m.
[COMMON NOUN] My cat gets hyper at 2 a.m.
[PROPER NOUN] Fluffy gets hyper at 2 a.m.
How to use articles with generic nouns
Using articles with generic nouns is tricky because generic nouns and other types of nouns can use the same articles with the same nouns. The only way to tell them apart is context.
[GENERIC] The computer changed the world.
[NOT GENERIC] The computer won’t connect to Wi-Fi.
In the first example, the computer refers to all computers or is shorthand for “the invention of computers.” Because it refers to computers as a whole, it’s a generic noun.
In the second example, the computer refers to one isolated computer. Because it refers to a specific and individual computer, it’s not a generic noun.
In English there are two types of articles: the definite article the and the indefinite articles a and an. Usually, definite articles are used for particular things to single them out, but they can also be used with generic nouns to represent the entire group.
Playing the drums is fun because you get to be loud.
Indefinite articles are used for nonspecific nouns and often mean the same as any. However, when used with generic nouns, they still refer to the group as a whole.
“A penny saved is a penny earned.”—Benjamin Franklin
Be careful when using indefinite articles for generic nouns, however. The indefinite article plus generic noun combo only works when it’s used to define the generic noun, explaining the properties or characteristics that all members of that group have.
Consider these examples from John Lawler’s “Ask a Linguist”:
The tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.
Tigers are in danger of becoming extinct.
A tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.
In that last example, the indefinite article a is used incorrectly. Not just one tiger is in danger; all of them are. However, if we created a new sentence that defined what a tiger is or what properties they all have, an indefinite article would be correct.
A tiger is a large cat with stripes.
Please note that if your generic noun is also a mass noun (aka uncountable or noncount nouns), you cannot use indefinite articles with it. While you can sometimes use the, an article isn’t necessary; the singular form of a mass noun works just fine.
I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating . . .
Plural generic nouns
If using articles with generic nouns feels complicated, we have good news. You can simply make your generic noun a plural noun, doing away with the need to use an article.
Let’s look at an example of a generic noun with an article.
The violin is a beautiful instrument.
If we pluralize violin, it’s still a generic noun that refers to the entire group of all violins. However, we remove the article for plural generic nouns, a principle known as zero article. Although in some cases you can use articles with plural nouns, you can’t with plural generic nouns.
Violins are beautiful instruments.
If you use the plural violins in place of the violin, the meaning remains the same.
When changing a singular generic noun into a plural, always double-check the subject-verb agreement. If the subject of a sentence is singular, the verb must also be singular; if the subject is plural, the verb must be plural. That’s why the first example uses is and the second example uses are.
Generic noun FAQs
What is a generic noun?
Generic nouns are nouns that refer to something in general or as a whole. For example, if you say, “I love basketball games,” it refers to all basketball games; this is a generic noun. If you say, “I loved the basketball game last night,” it refers to one specific basketball game, so it’s not a generic noun.
What are the rules for using articles with generic nouns?
Different types of nouns use the same articles as generic nouns, so you have to use context to tell them apart. While the definite article the is commonly used with generic nouns, the indefinite articles a and an are used with generic nouns only when the statement is defining or stating characteristics. If you’re ever confused, you can instead use a plural generic noun, which doesn’t require any articles.
Generic noun vs. common noun vs. proper noun?
A proper noun is a specific noun referred to by its name or title, while a common noun is every noun that’s not a proper noun. Technically, generic nouns belong to the group of common nouns, but they’re just one type of many.
Related Article: Articles (A, An, The) in English Grammar