How powerful do you need the/zero computers to be?

Alexey86

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There are three types of indefinite noun phrases in English:

1. Generic
A computer is a useful tool for work.
Computers are useful tools for work.


2. Non-specific
I need a powerful computer for my job.
I need powerful computers for my job.

(I don't have any particular computer(s) in mind).

3. Specific
I bought a powerful computer for my job.
I bought some powerful computers for my job.

(I'm talking about a particular computer/particular ones).

In generic use nouns are non-referential. They don't take the definite article when repeated (= don't refer anaphorically): A computer is a useful tool for work. It/A computer can save you a lot of time.

In specific use nouns are referential and takes the when repeated, functioning as anaphors:
- I bought a powerful computer for my job.
- How powerful is it/the computer?


In the examples below (taken from here: https://www.usingenglish.com/forum/...-like-vs-How-strong-does-he-like-coffee/page2 ) both powerful computer and powerful computers are used non-specifically. Since they are equal in terms of specificity and reference, I was sure both variants should take the same articles when repeated. So, I used (zero) computers and a computer respectively. However, Skrej and GoesStation said computers should be definite. Otherwise, the reference would be generic. I don't understand why it would necessarily be generic.

1)
- I need very powerful computers for my job.

- Look at these models. X can run at 5 TFLOPS and Y can reach up to 6 TFLOPS.
- That's not enough for me.
- How powerful do you need the computers to be?
2)
- I need a very powerful computer for my job.
- Look at these models. X can run at 5 TFLOPS and Y can reach up to 6 TFLOPS.
- That's not enough for me.
- How powerful a computer do you need?


Why do singular and plural nouns take the same articles in generic and specific uses, and different ones in non-specific use when repeated?

 
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Charlie Bernstein

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1. Why do singular and plural nouns take the same articles in generic and specific uses and different ones in non-specific use when repeated?

Your examples all work because they're consistent. You need A computer. How powerful A computer? You need A very powerful computer.

And as you know, if you tell us you bought A computer, it's THE computer you bought.
That probably isn't a helpful answer, but I'm sure you'll get one soon.

What's a zero computer?
 

Alexey86

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What's a zero computer?

(zero) = the zero article.

Your examples all work because they're consistent. You need A computer. How powerful A computer? You need A very powerful computer.

Why is the first example inconsistent, then? I would expect this: I need (zero article) powerful computers. - How powerful do you need (zero article) computers to be?
 
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GoesStation

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I would expect this: I need (zero article) powerful computers. - How powerful do you need (zero article) computers to be?
You aren't specifying the computers. Without the article, the sentence is about computers in general. The article tells the listener which computers you're talking about: the ones you just mentioned.
 

Charlie Bernstein

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Why is the first example inconsistent, then? I would expect this: I need (zero article) powerful computers. - How powerful do you need the computers to be?

Why is it inconsistent? In the first sentence, you say what kind of computers you need. So in the second, we know which computers you're talking about: the computers you need and ask for more information about them.
Or do you mean this?:

1. Generic
A computer is a useful tool for work.
Computers are useful tools for work.

What is it inconsistent with?
 
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Tdol

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1)
- I need very powerful computers for my job.
- Look at these models. X can run at 5 TFLOPS and Y can reach up to 6 TFLOPS.
- That's not enough for me.
- How powerful do you need the computers to be?

In the first use, the person is talking in general. When they move onto specific speeds, the conversation is more specific- about the computers the person wishes to buy and the spec necessary.
 

Alexey86

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You aren't specifying the computers. Without the article, the sentence is about computers in general. The article tells the listener which computers you're talking about: the ones you just mentioned.

Why is there the indefinite article in the second example, then?

- I need a very powerful computer for my job.
- Look at these models. X can run at 5 TFLOPS and Y can reach up to 6 TFLOPS.
- That's not enough for me.
- How powerful a computer do you need?

According to your logic, a computer in the question should also be considered 'the one you just mentioned.' Please look also at this example:

Jane dreams of marrying a pilot. He/The pilot must be in the rank of captain at least.


Is the definite article correct there? If so, a computer should also be changed to the computer because both a pilot and a very powerful computer are non-specific. So, they both become non-specific definite, so to speak, which means they are referring to particular ideals, not to a real/actual/substantial thing or person.


Or do you mean this?:

1. Generic
A computer is a useful tool for work.
Computers are useful tools for work.

What is it inconsistent with?

1. Generic
A computer is a useful tool for work. -> It/A computer can save you a lot of time.
(zero article) Computers are useful tools for work. -> They/(zero article) Computers can save you a lot of time.

Both the singular and the plural nouns don't change the article when repeated.

3. Specific
- I bought a powerful computer for my job. - How powerful is it/the computer?
- I bought some powerful computers for my job. How powerful are they/the computers?

Both variants change the article when repeated.

2. Non-specific
- I need a powerful computer for my job. - How powerful a computer do you need
- I need powerful computers for my job. - How powerful do you need the computers to be.

The singular variant keeps its article, while the plural one changes it. That's what I mean by inconsistency.
 
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GoesStation

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Why is there the indefinite article in the second example, then?

- I need a very powerful computer for my job.
- Look at these models. X can run at 5 TFLOPS and Y can reach up to 6 TFLOPS.
- That's not enough for me.
- How powerful a computer do you need?

According to your logic, a computer in the question should also be considered 'the one you just mentioned.'
I addressed this earlier. You said you need a powerful computer. I'm thinking about the set of all powerful computers, among which there is at least one — that is, a computer — that meets your needs. A means one. You haven't mentioned that one yet; that's why I'm asking for clarification.

Please look also at this example:

Jane dreams of marrying a pilot. [STRIKE]He/The pilot must be in[/STRIKE] He should hold at least the rank of captain [STRIKE]at least[/STRIKE].


Is the definite article correct there?
It's not a good sentence so I'm not sure what to say about it. You really should follow jutfrank's advice and use only sentences from native writers as examples.

However, if you mean "The pilot must be at least a captain," you need the definite article because you're speaking about a specific pilot: the one Jane hopes to marry. If she were even shallower and was looking for a handsome pilot, you might wonder how handsome a pilot she was dreaming of. That is, of all handsome pilots, which one displays enough masculine attractiveness to qualify as the threshold pilot.

I've just thought of another sentence you could consider. Perhaps you're thinking of something like this: Jane dreams of marrying a pilot — a pilot who is at least a captain. A small change might illustrate the point I tried to make above: Jane dreams of marrying a pilot — one who is at least a captain.

As I've said before, I really think you'll learn the correct use of articles much more efficiently if you spend your time reading rather than discussing them. Try reading obsessively for a couple of weeks. When you get tired of reading, watch historical dramas on TV. (Writers use formal English in that genre because it sounds old fashioned to modern viewers.) When you tire of that, go back to reading. Don't take notes; just read and watch. Come back when you're done and we'll see whether your use of articles has improved. I'm betting it will.
 

Alexey86

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As I've said before, I really think you'll learn the correct use of articles much more efficiently if you spend your time reading rather than discussing them. Try reading obsessively for a couple of weeks. When you get tired of reading, watch historical dramas on TV. (Writers use formal English in that genre because it sounds old fashioned to modern viewers.) When you tire of that, go back to reading. Don't take notes; just read and watch. Come back when you're done and we'll see whether your use of articles has improved. I'm betting it will.

GS, I understand that you only want to help me, and I appreciate that. The thing is that I don't want just to learn the correct use of articles. I want to understand them. Analyzing examples can be effectively used for that purpose because I only choose examples that I would not understand even through obsessive reading.

However, if you mean "The pilot must be at least a captain," you need the definite article because you're speaking about a specific pilot: the one Jane hopes to marry.

You said you need a powerful computer. I'm thinking about the set of all powerful computers, among which there is at least one — that is, a computer — that meets your needs. A means one. You haven't mentioned that one yet; that's why I'm asking for clarification.

Let me lay out my wrong understanding in three steps:

Step 1
1a) I need a powerful computer for my job.
1b) I need powerful computers for my job.

a computer = I'm thinking about the set of all powerful computers, among which there is at least one — that is, a computer — that meets my needs. A means one.
computers = I'm thinking about the set of all powerful computers, among which there are at least several computers — that is, (zero article) computers — that meet my needs. The zero article means several.

Step 2
2a) How powerful a computer do you need?
2b) How powerful do you need (the) computers to be?

a computer/computers = see above.

Step 3
3a) The computer must run at 8 TFLOPS, at least (= The pilot must be at least a captain).
3b) The computers must run at 8 TFLOPS, at least (= The pilot must be at least a captain).

the computer/the computers/the pilot = I need the definite article because I'm speaking about a specific computer/specific computers/pilot

I don't understand why computers should be definite at the second step. In my view, there is no difference at all between 2a and 2b in terms of specificity.
 
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GoesStation

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I'm sorry, but I don't share your passion for understanding the use of articles. Such an understanding would obviously be helpful to me in my role as a volunteer teacher of English as a foreign language. I've thought far more about the subject in the last couple of years than I have for many years before, the last time (I think) being when I realized that the partitive article in French indicates plurality and a learner who understands this can tell when it's needed. (French teachers on the sadly defunct forum where I shared my insight didn't buy it.)

At any rate, I may revisit this topic down the road but for now, I'm going to drop out of the thread.
 

Alexey86

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At any rate, I may revisit this topic down the road but for now, I'm going to drop out of the thread.

I just want you to know that your answers have really provided a lot of food for thought.:up:
 

jutfrank

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I don't understand why computers should be definite at the second step.

It shouldn't. As you say, without the article it is not definite.
 

Alexey86

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It shouldn't. As you say, without the article it is not definite.

Skrej and GS say it would be generic in that case, which would not fit the context. Can computer/computers be either specific or non-specific depending of the seller's assumption?

A: I need a very powerful computer for my job.
B: Look at these models. X can run at 5 TFLOPS and Y can reach up to 6 TFLOPS.
A: That's not enough for me.
B: (assuming A doesn't have a particular computer in mind) How powerful a computer do you need? (non-specific meaning)
(assuming A has either a particular model or a clear picture of what he needs in mind) How powerful the computer do you need? (specific meaning)

A: I need very powerful computers for my job.
B: Look at these models. X can run at 5 TFLOPS and Y can reach up to 6 TFLOPS.
A: That's not enough for me.
B: (assuming A doesn't have particular computers in mind) How powerful do you need computers to be? (non-specific meaning)
(assuming A has either particular models or a clear picture of what he needs in mind) How powerful do you need the computers to be (specific meaning)?
 

emsr2d2

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Skrej and GS say it would be generic in that case, which would not fit the context. Can computer/computers be either specific or non-specific depending of the seller's assumption?

A: I need a very powerful computer for my job.
B: Look at these models. X can run at 5 TFLOPS and Y can reach up to 6 TFLOPS.
A: That's not enough for me.
B: (assuming A doesn't have a particular computer in mind) How powerful a computer do you need? (non-specific meaning) :tick:
(assuming A has either a particular model or a clear picture of what he needs in mind) How powerful the computer do you need? (specific meaning) :cross:

A: I need very powerful computers for my job.
B: Look at these models. X can run at 5 TFLOPS and Y can reach up to 6 TFLOPS.
A: That's not enough for me.
B: (assuming A doesn't have particular computers in mind) How powerful do you need computers to be? (non-specific meaning) :cross:
(assuming A has either particular models or a clear picture of what he needs in mind) How powerful do you need the computers to be (specific meaning)? :tick:

With the first examples, I think there's a very basic grammatical fact you haven't grasped: We use the construction "How + adjective + a + noun ...?" but we don't use "How + adjective + the + noun ...?"

How hot a summer was it? :tick:
How hot the summer was it? :cross:
How large a dog do you have? :tick:
How large the dog do you have? :cross:

It's not a case of specific or non-specific. It's simply that the definite article is not used in that construction.


In your second set of examples, "How powerful do you need computers to be?" refers to all the computers in the world.
 

Alexey86

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It's not a case of specific or non-specific. It's simply that the definite article is not used in that construction.

Does it have to do with whether 'computer' precedes or follows the verb?

- I've bought a very powerful computer.
- How powerful a computer have you bought? vs How power is it (= is the computer)?
 
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emsr2d2

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1.
- I've bought a very powerful computer.
- How powerful is it (= is the computer)?

2.
- I've bought a very powerful computer.
- How powerful a computer have you bought?

With my changes, they're correct.
 
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