What is the difference between A and The in the following sentences?

  • No other animal is as tall as a/the giraffe.

  • An/the Inland Taipan's venom is the most venomous one in the world.

My grammar book says when we want to talk about a race or a whole class we use the. But still I am unable to decide a or the which one I should use. Can any please explain the meaning of each of the sentences using a and the. And which one do you think is more appropriate?


When we talk about the giraffe to refer to giraffes as a class, we are essentially talking about a conceptual giraffe rather than a concrete giraffe. It is referring to the class itself. Thus, we can say

The giraffe evolved around one million years ago.

But we cannot say

The giraffe would be a strange pet

At least, unless we're talking about a specific giraffe.

When we use the indefinite article, using a giraffe to talk in general terms, we are speaking of an arbitrary giraffe. It is a concrete giraffe, but it is not a specific concrete giraffe. Essentially, it means "any given giraffe". Thus, we can say:

A giraffe would be a strange pet

But we cannot say

A giraffe evolved around one million years ago

At least, not unless you have a funny idea of how evolution works - and even then you wouldn't be speaking in general terms any more.

In both of these cases, it's important to distinguish between the general, non-specific usage and the specific usage. Both the and a can be used when speaking of specific giraffes as well. The difference here is about how they are used to make general statements about non-specific giraffes.

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