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I have referred to many grammar books and they say that

"A cow gives us milk" and "The cow gives us milk" mean the same thing. They mean all cows give us milk or cows give us milk.

I know that the article "the" talks about the whole class.
Does the indefinite article "a" also talk about the whole class of animals in the given sentence?

I would like to know when a cow and the cow differ in meaning.

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We need more context to understand the sentences. While "The cow" can mean "cows in general", but "Cows" is also used in this sense and might be more common. "The cow" can also mean "that cow, the one we were talking about". "A cow" means "one cow".

I have five chickens and a cow. The cow gives us milk. ("That cow that I just mentioned")

Kind and docile, the cow gives the human race milk. (Generic use of "the cow", but "cows give the human race milk" would be more common)

You should drink more milk. A cow would give you that. ("One cow", but it implies that any one cow would do, because all cows give milk)

  • does A cow gives us milk and The cow gives us milk talk about the class? – Englishmonger Aug 14 at 8:47
  • You have to provide context. "The cow" can talk about the class, normally it doesn't. "A cow" does not talk about the class, but it can imply things about the class. I've tried to explain in my answer that the context is very important in understanding. Please look at my examples. – James K Aug 14 at 8:59
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I am thankful to Mr James K who answered my question well I referred to Michael Swan's Practical English Usage from which I will give some examples which show the difference between a cow and the cow

  1. A child needs plenty of care
  2. A baby deer can stand on its own
  3. The tiger is in danger of extinction
  4. Schools should pay attention to the child

So it is evident when we are generalising about all of the members of a group together we can use a,an or the

But if we are talking about the whole family as in the sentence 3 we cannot use the article the, we can not say “A tiger is in danger of extinction”

source: Practical English Usage by Michael Swan (62.2) Generalisation with singular words

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