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Which one of these sentences is correct:

A bat is not a bird, but a mammal.

or

Bats are not birds but mammals

or

The bats are not birds but mammals.

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Both of the examples:

  • A bat is not a bird, but a mammal.
  • Bats are not birds but mammals

are correct. The choice of whether to use singular or plural forms is purely one of style. The meaning is identical. The third example:

  • The bats are not birds but mammals.

is not incorrect. It uses "the bats" to refer to bats as a (specified) group. It is a bit more formal, and the extra words do not, in this case, add anything to the meaning. Some writers use a definite article with a singular form in such a construction, such as:

  • The bat is not a bird, but a mammal.

This is not grammatically incorrect, but in my view is always a mistake. It implies that bats are a singular kind of thing, whereas in fact there are a number of different species of bats. This form disregards those differences, and indeed implies that they are unimportant. The late biologist and essayist Stephan Jay Gould wrote that the use of such forms as "The bat", "the whale", or "The monkey" when referring to entire wide groups was generally a mark of careless and lazy writing about nature. I agree, and advise avoiding such forms.

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    The bats [in the attic] are not birds but mammals. That's fine. And in formal writing: "The bat is not a mammal." is fine, where "The bat" is used for "bats". The cow was domesticated at a late date.=Cows were domesticated at a late date. – Lambie Sep 1 at 16:26
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    The construction where "The Bat" is used for all bats, or "the cow" is used for all cows, is precisely the construction which I argue is typically used by lazy writers, and should be avoided, particularly in formal but popular accounts. It is grammatical, but obscures key facts to no gain. – David Siegel Sep 1 at 16:38
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    This construction falsely implies that "The bat" is a thing, while in fact it is a collection of multiple species with significant differences. Diversity is a key characteristic of nature, and an essentialist viewpoint obscures this reality. – David Siegel Sep 1 at 16:46
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    @Andrew It is not only my personal view. The late S. J. Gould expressed it several times, and he was a very noted writer on this specific topic. – David Siegel Sep 1 at 16:58
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    Constructions where "the bat" is used for all bats is most definitely in the grammar books and in formal writing. Especially stuff like zoology. "The bat emits high-pitched sounds (up to 100,000 hertz) that echo from objects it encounters; " factmonster.com/encyclopedia/ecology/animals/vertebrates/bat/… – Lambie Sep 1 at 17:00

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