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I am a non-native English speaker. I was reading a paragraph about lions and I came up with a question about 'the definite article (the)'.

Let me tell you first what I know about it.

1->We use it before a singular noun (when we are sure about the noun. And the listener and the speaker both know about it).

2->We use before a plural noun (again when we are sure about the noun, and we are not talking generally). So, my question is that why the writer used 'it (the)' here as we are not talking about any specific lion or lions. We are talking generally.

The Paragraph:

Living in the grasslands, scrub, and open woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa, the lion is the second largest cat in the world. It is dwarfed slightly by the tiger, which is closely related and has a very similar body type.

Can we re-write the paragraph something like this:

Living in grasslands, scrub, and open woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa, lions are the second largest cat in the world. They are dwarfed slightly by tigers, they are closely related and has a very similar body type.


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I TOTALLY agree! However, I'd keep the for the first sentence as it's talking about the grasslands etc. that belong to sub-Saharan Africa, so it's unique and specific. I've to admit. Articles are annoying! –  Maulik V May 3 '14 at 9:46
@MaulikV, Thanks, I agree about grasslands. but others do not make sense to me. –  user62015 May 3 '14 at 10:13
Suggested reading: www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/000001.html. To summarize it, the definite generic (the lion) refers to the prototype of a species, and the plural generic (lions) refers to the norm of a species. In this case the species of the lions living there, I believe. –  Damkerng T. May 3 '14 at 10:24

1 Answer 1

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Yes, your rewrite is acceptable.

As for your confusion, it looks like you might have a case of DAMS (Definite Article Meaning Syndrome, a relatively common affliction that often affects English learners. It's chief symptom is confusion, generally caused by the erroneous belief that definite articles are only used for things previously referred to and specified in a narrative or conversation).

However, there are other uses of the definite article – ones that don't seem to get as much attention in ESL classes. For example, the word “the” can also be used:

  • to refer to things that are unique (The Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre.)
  • to make a generalized reference to something (Bob plays the piano.)
  • to indicate that there is enough of something (She plans to bake a pie, if she has the ingredients.)
  • with adjectives, to refer to a group of people (This is another tax break for the rich.)

In the passage you quote, the author elected to use the definite article to make a generalized reference to the flora and fauna of Africa: grassy woodlands, lions and tigers. The wording would only seem strange to someone afflicted with DAMS.

This is worth mentioning, too; under its entry for the, NOAD lists:

used with a singular noun to indicate that it represents a whole species or class : they placed the African elephant on their endangered list.

(Disclaimer: DAMS is an acronym I just made up for the purpose of this answer. It was intended to be humorous. However, this isn't the first time I've witnessed this confusion; I've encountered it several times on both ELL and ELU.)

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lol... +1 for DAMS a perfect definition and should find place in some dictionary :) –  Maulik V May 3 '14 at 11:29
I believe that in the latest diagnostics, which are learner- rather than pedagog-centered, this has been reclassified as Definite Article Meaning Nonstability Incomprehension Trauma. –  StoneyB May 3 '14 at 12:52

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