17

Article before a common noun:

The cow--- a particular cow.

A cow--- any cow.

Cows.---all of them.

But while reading an essay on cow, we usually get to see:

The cow is a very useful domestic animal.

In my opinion I should be:

Cows are very useful domestic animals.

And the title should be Cows instead of The cow.

Please help.

Thank you.

39

This is a special usage of the word "the". It is listed in the MacMillan Dictionary under definition #2 as follows,

"used before a singular noun when making a general statement about people or things of a particular type"

They give two examples:

The average university student is not very interested in politics.

People have come to depend on the car as their only means of transport.

Used in this way, "the + singular noun" means basically the same thing as that same noun pluralized:

the cow = cows

the English garden = English gardens

the computer = computers

This construction is very common in titles and introductory sentences within paragraphs and chapters because it has a certain air of scholarliness about it that the simple plural form just doesn't convey.

  • 5
    Also, you can tell which "the" is used from the context: if there is no particular cow that the speaker could be referencing, then it means "cows, in general". Contrast with "I have a goldfish, a hamster, and a cow. The cow a very useful domestic animal." – Bass Apr 25 at 20:08
  • 9
    The (Archetypal) Cow – Ruadhan2300 Apr 26 at 12:36
  • 1
    The cow (species) – ikegami Apr 27 at 16:12
  • Agree with @ikegami's point. "the cow" means cow species as opposed to goldfish, hamster, or squirrel species. // I'll also quibble a bit that that the species is "cattle." Cow is a female, bull is a male. – MaxW Apr 27 at 16:34
  • 1
    I take it back, actually. While the sentence does refer to the cow species, you get weird results if you voice an implied "species" in your head. One wouldn't say "The cow species is a very useful domestic animal." Ruadhan2300's approach is not only more general, you can safely voice the implied "archetypal" in your head. – ikegami Apr 27 at 17:56
21

It's a difference between the abstract and the concrete. Adding "the" before a noun this way changes the meaning, from actual instances of the concept to the concept itself.

Other answers have stated correctly that semantically the two are equivalent but one just "sounds" more formal or more academic. That's true, but I believe the reason is that "the cow" refers to the concept of cows, whereas "cows" refers more directly to, well, actual cows; and speaking at the conceptual level is common in scholarly writing.

11

The cow is a common way of referring to a species, as well as just a specific individual cow.

Cows refers to all of them.

It's slightly more formal to write of "the cow" than "cows", and is normally preferred in an essay.

  • Is it a non-count noun if there's a the and no 's'? – Mazura Apr 27 at 2:17
  • "The cow" is singular (countable) both in "the cow is a species" and "the cow by the barn". It's uncountable in "some cow" (but this is strange usage because we have the word "beef"). "The goat" is singular, "Some goat for dinner" is uncountable. – jonathanjo Apr 27 at 11:55
5

A cow is a useful domestic animal.

is semantically equivalent to:

Cows are useful domestic animals. AND The cow is a useful domestic animal.

Usually, the use with the is more academic. In everyday language, we tend to use the plural.

So, in fact, any of them could be used in a title.

3

You have only recognised three meanings for the grammatical forms. There are at least six:

Introduce into context

  • a cow - used to introduce a single cow into context
  • cows - used to introduce multiple cows into context

Cows were grazing by the side of the road. A cow wandered off.

Refer to existing context

  • the cow - a single cow already in context
  • the cows - multiple cows already in context

The cow wandered into town. The other cows returned to the farm.

Refer to entire species

  • the cow - the species known as "cow"
  • cows - all individuals of the species "cow"

The cow is a bovine. Cows are large animals.

Both the original and your sentence are correct to refer to the entire species:

The cow is a very useful domestic animal.

Cows are very useful domestic animals.

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