of a generation

jutfrank

VIP Member
Joined
Mar 5, 2014
Member Type
English Teacher
Native Language
English
Home Country
England
Current Location
England
I think we should sort out the meaning first, before we get into indefinite articles.

1) Sometimes we use the noun generation to mean a group of people with the same age. Here's a clear example:

My parents belong to an older generation.

2) And sometimes we use it very differently to talk about the lifetime of a particular group of people. This one can also be used to refer to the particular historical era which that lifetime corresponds to. That's just how we talk about history.

So:

Surely one of the most influential comedians of a generation.

can be understood as both:

1) Surely one of the most influential comedians of those people of a similar age to him.
2) Surely one of the most influential comedians of the last 30 years.

Now in this context, it doesn't really matter much which interpretation you take because they both have the same practical meaning. But I think there are reasons to prefer the second over the first. What reasons? Well, just from what Mr Gervais is doing with the text. When someone famous dies, we typically talk about their place in history.

Also, if the speaker was in fact using sense 1, a clearer way to phrase it would be with a different determiner:

Surely one of the most influential comedians of his generation.

Example sentence 2 is more clearly used in the sense of the group of contemporaries:

Outrage has become the lingua franca of a generation.

So that's sense 1 as I've described above. How do I know? Again from understanding what thought the speaker has in mind. People have lingua francas, not eras.

(Please tell me your objections to this post first before moving on.)


 

Alexey86

Senior Member
Joined
Nov 3, 2018
Member Type
Student or Learner
Native Language
Russian
Home Country
Russian Federation
Current Location
Russian Federation
Also, if the speaker was in fact using sense 1, a clearer way to phrase it would be with a different determiner:

Surely one of the most influential comedians of his generation.

I'll try to explain my confusion. Let's consider this: Yesterday I bought a book. Today I noticed the cover of the book is dirty.

I think you wouldn't say that the book in the second sentence is just a clearer way to refer to a book in the first one. If I used a book again, it would not just be less clear, but completely misleading and semantically incorrect. How can a generation and his generation be practically interchangeable, then? The former sounds to me like the cover of a book instead of the cover of the book.

Example sentence 2 is more clearly used in the sense of the group of contemporaries:

Outrage has become the lingua franca of a generation.

To my non-native ear it sounds odd if both the author and the reader know what generation is being referred to. I fail to imagine any situation where I would say that without the listener being already aware of the generation I meant, which would force me to use one of the definite determiners (the/this/that/their, etc. depending on the context), but only definite. I don't understand how a generation above can make sense at all.
 
Last edited:

Skrej

Key Member
Joined
May 11, 2015
Member Type
English Teacher
Native Language
English
Home Country
United States
Current Location
United States
You may just have to accept that this is something that makes complete sense to a native English speaker. We understand that saying 'a generation', refers to people that are (roughly) the same age as the person or event in question.

I also think your examples comparing 'a book' to 'a generation' are comparing apples to oranges. With the context of 'a book', of course we have no way of intuitively understanding which book, because there are millions of books, and no real reference point. Is this a newly written book or a book from a hundred years ago?

However, generations are much more limited. We're limited to basically three choices - a prior generation, the current generation, or a future generation.

It's very unlikely to influence a prior generation, as they've already had their influences. Old dog, new tricks, etc.

I suppose influencing a future generation is more plausible than influencing a past generation, but it would require some context like "influenced generations to come".

The most likely case then is for somebody/something to influence the contemporary generation - the people who are (roughly) the same age or living at the same time. By and large, we humans live for the present, not the future or the past, so that's what we tend to think of first.

Ergo, without further context stating the contrary, we'd understand 'a generation' to be the most current one. It's our default time reference.
 
Last edited:

Alexey86

Senior Member
Joined
Nov 3, 2018
Member Type
Student or Learner
Native Language
Russian
Home Country
Russian Federation
Current Location
Russian Federation
You may just have to accept

Sounds like Stop analyzing English. I'm afraid I can't.

I also think your examples comparing 'a book' to 'a generation' are comparing apples to oranges.

To me, it's like the laws of physics that are the same everywhere but one place. A(n) always makes things indefinite, while the makes them definite. Always the opposite. But now I see there's a place where they are practically the same.

However, generations are much more limited. We're limited to basically three choices - a prior generation, the current generation, or a future generation.

Did you wrote the current generation despite the limitation you mentioned earlier or due to that limitation? Why not a current generation?
I think you'll say it's because there is only one current generation. But it's strange that a generation means the current generation, but not a current one.
 
Last edited:

GoesStation

No Longer With Us
Joined
Dec 22, 2015
Member Type
Interested in Language
Native Language
American English
Home Country
United States
Current Location
United States
Did you [STRIKE]wrote[/STRIKE] write the current generation despite the limitation you mentioned earlier or due to that limitation? Why not a current generation, since it is this limitation that allows us to use influence his/a generation interchangeably?

Alexey, I'm tempted to close this thread. You're trying to find an analytical explanation for a usage which may defy analysis despite being perfectly clear to a native speaker. Your time would be much better spent reading English than trying to analyze it.
 

5jj

Moderator
Staff member
Joined
Oct 14, 2010
Member Type
Native Language
British English
Home Country
Czech Republic
Current Location
Czech Republic
To me, it's like the laws of physics that are the same everywhere but one place. A(n) always makes things indefinite, while the makes them definite. Always the opposite. But now I see there's a place where they are practically the same.
They are not practically the same.
The Baby Boomers in the USA grew up with Rock and Roll, the Cuba crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. In some ways, Bob Dylan was the voice of the/that generation. The generation is precisely defined in the words in Blue.
With his protest songs in the 1960s, Bob Dylan became the voice of a generation. Generation is not precisely defined. It is one of a small number of generations. Young people in the west knew which generation it was - Dylan's, theirs.
Did you wrote the current generation despite the limitation you mentioned earlier or due to that limitation? Why not a current generation?
I think you'll say it's because there is only one current generation. But it's strange that a generation means the current generation, but not a current one.
A generation does not automatically mean the current one, or indeed any particular one. However, as Skrej said (my emphasis added), without further context stating the contrary, we'd understand 'a generation' to be the most current one. It's our default time reference
 
Last edited by a moderator:

tzfujimino

Key Member
Joined
Dec 8, 2007
Member Type
English Teacher
Native Language
Japanese
Home Country
Japan
Current Location
Japan
With his protest songs in the 1960s, Bob Dylan became the voice of a generation. Generation is not precisely defined. It is one of a small number of generations. Young people in the west knew which generation it was - Dylan's, theirs.

I hope I'm correct.
(It's Skrej.:) )
 
Last edited:

Alexey86

Senior Member
Joined
Nov 3, 2018
Member Type
Student or Learner
Native Language
Russian
Home Country
Russian Federation
Current Location
Russian Federation
With his protest songs in the 1960s, Bob Dylan became the voice of a generation. Generation is not precisely defined. It is one of a small number of generations. Young people in the west knew which generation it was - Dylan's, theirs.

It sounds like meaning 2 by jutfrank: And sometimes we use it very differently to talk about the lifetime of a particular group of people. This one can also be used to refer to the particular historical era which that lifetime corresponds to. That's just how we talk about history.

A generation does not automatically mean the current one, or indeed any particular one. However, as Skrej said (my emphasis added), without further context stating the contrary, we'd understand 'a generation' to be the most current one. It's our default time reference

Never have I come across such an interpretation of the meaning of an indefinite NP within the structure the noun of a noun. What words can it be applied to in addition to generation?
 
Last edited:

jutfrank

VIP Member
Joined
Mar 5, 2014
Member Type
English Teacher
Native Language
English
Home Country
England
Current Location
England
I'll try to explain my confusion. Let's consider this: Yesterday I bought a book. Today I noticed the cover of the book is dirty.

Then the confusion stems from making this comparison. Don't use the 'book' example as way to understand the 'generation' example. That isn't productive.

Here's another direction you could take:

I'm offering you a once-in-a lifetime opportunity.

Are you going to say that this also confuses you? Why do we use a lifetime, when the meaning is obviously your lifetime?

The phrase one the most influential comedians of a generation just simply does not need to make reference to which generation. The point of the utterance is to express how influential the comedian is. His influence as a comedian is remarkable with respect to any generation. It doesn't matter which generation we're talking about because there's nothing particularly notable being said about any specific generation. Similarly it doesn't matter whose lifetime—it only matters that the opportunity is rare.
 

jutfrank

VIP Member
Joined
Mar 5, 2014
Member Type
English Teacher
Native Language
English
Home Country
England
Current Location
England
Alexey, I'm tempted to close this thread.

Please don't do that. By all means move it to a different section, but I don't think there are grounds for closing it just because it may be frustrating for some to read.
 

jutfrank

VIP Member
Joined
Mar 5, 2014
Member Type
English Teacher
Native Language
English
Home Country
England
Current Location
England
The Baby Boomers in the USA grew up with Rock and Roll, the Cuba crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. In some ways, Bob Dylan was the voice of the/that generation. The generation is precisely defined in the words in Blue.

With his protest songs in the 1960s, Bob Dylan became the voice of a generation. Generation is not precisely defined. It is one of a small number of generations. Young people in the west knew which generation it was - Dylan's, theirs.

I just want to point out that this is exactly how I would explain it. :up:

A generation does not automatically mean the current one, or indeed any particular one. However, as Skrej said (my emphasis added), without further context stating the contrary, we'd understand 'a generation' to be the most current one. It's our default time reference

Yes. I think there may be some confusion between what something means semantically (which is what I think Alexey is focusing on) and what something means pragmatically (i.e. speaker meaning), which is what we tend to focus on. The question "How can an indefinite noun phrase express a specific thing?" can be resolved with a pragmatic analysis.
 
Last edited:

Alexey86

Senior Member
Joined
Nov 3, 2018
Member Type
Student or Learner
Native Language
Russian
Home Country
Russian Federation
Current Location
Russian Federation
Are you going to say that this also confuses you? Why do we use a lifetime, when the meaning is obviously your lifetime?

Lifetime is just a name for a long period of time that by itself doesn't belong to anyone in particular. It's non-referential. Your lifetime, at the same time, is definite and referring to a particular person.

His influence as a comedian is remarkable with respect to any generation. It doesn't matter which generation we're talking about because there's nothing particularly notable being said about any specific generation.

I have no difficulty with this explanation because generation should not be understood literally, as a group of people, but rather as a degree marker = non-referring/non-literal meaning.

Does it also not matter what generation is being talked about in (2-4), and generation is a period of time, degree marker or something else?
2. Outrage has become the lingua franca of a generation.
3. She has been the guide of a generation.
4. Let's hope this issue will be the exception. The future of a generation may depend upon it.
 
Last edited:

jutfrank

VIP Member
Joined
Mar 5, 2014
Member Type
English Teacher
Native Language
English
Home Country
England
Current Location
England
Lifetime is just a name for a long period of time that by itself doesn't belong to anyone in particular. It's non-referential. Your lifetime, at the same time, is definite and referring to a particular person.

Right. So can you apply that thinking to the 'generation' example?

Does it also not matter what generation is being talked about in (2-4), and generation is a period of time, degree marker or something else?
2. Outrage has become the lingua franca of a generation.
3. She has been the guide of a generation.
4. Let's hope this issue will be the exception. The future of a generation may depend upon it.

Right. Let's take one at a time. Consider 2 in this way:

Outrage has become the lingua franca of a generation.

Pragmatic meaning: a generation = this generation. We know the speaker is talking about this specific generation from the context.
Semantic meaning: a generation = an unspecified generation

Compare with this:

Outrage was the lingua franca of a generation.

Pragmatically speaking, the phrase a generation still has reference to a particular generation, but this time in the past, therefore completely different reference. The semantic meaning is identical, however.

I think point of both of these examples is to express the extent of the outrage, not to make reference to a specific generation.

By the way, the meaning of generation in this example , as I said in a previous post, is a group of people, not a period of time. My interpretation comes from what I'm guessing the writer means. I think he/she's saying that the outrage is characteristic of millennials.
 

probus

Moderator
Staff member
Joined
Jan 7, 2011
Member Type
Native Language
English
Home Country
Canada
Current Location
Canada
I always find it slightly annoying and offensive when people describe Bob Dylan as the voice of my generation. It makes me wonder whether they are tone-deaf or whether perhaps they have never listened to Paul Simon and Tom Waits.
 

Alexey86

Senior Member
Joined
Nov 3, 2018
Member Type
Student or Learner
Native Language
Russian
Home Country
Russian Federation
Current Location
Russian Federation
Example 2 is clear now. I'll try to apply this logic to the others:

She has been the guide of a generation = She is a woman of high caliber and great influence.
The future of a generation may depend on it = The scale of impact it can have on people's lives is enormous

What do you think?
 
Last edited:

Charlie Bernstein

VIP Member
Joined
Jan 28, 2009
Member Type
Other
Native Language
English
Home Country
United States
Current Location
United States
. . . Never have I come across such an interpretation of the meaning of an indefinite NP within the structure the noun of a noun. What words can it be applied to in addition to generation?
It's safe to simply assume that the cohort "a generation" refers to is Dylan's, especially since we're not told otherwise.
 
Top