9

This is intended as a generic statement:

*A madrigal is popular.

This means that being popular is a requirement for being a madrigal.

...of course this conclusion is wrong, so I've marked the example with a star.

*A tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.

The tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.

Tigers are in danger of becoming extinct.

The Indefinite Generic a tiger is ungrammatical with the predicate become extinct, because that extinction can only happen to a species, and it means that every member is dead. In contrast, we we can use the Definite Generic because the predicate is characteristic of the species. We can also use a Plural Generic because we're speaking of tigers in aggregate.

I read those examples and explanations in a grammar book (or, more likely, online). Would anyone please explain those in a more simple way, so that I could get it? I cannot tell what the explanations mean very well.

Or could you possibly explain that with another example that is easier to understand?

  • I guess it should be tigers "are" in danger of becoming extinct.. – Berker Yüceer Aug 7 '14 at 13:26
  • 4
    I can coerce a reading of A tiger is in danger of... if it relates to a [species of] tiger. – jimsug Aug 7 '14 at 14:11
  • I'm happy that my try to make it simple for you worked. And many thanks for the reward. :-) – Maulik V Aug 14 '14 at 14:58
2
+500

I have considered that you have gone through this document here, the original source of this question and the other answer here, but then it's still perplexing.

So now...

I shall try to address the Or could you possibly explain that with another example that is easier to understand? part here:

Articles are difficult to understand and depending on the context their usage changes. I have recently asked a question on this.

Now, please note that I'm creating the context here.

The scene is — you are standing in the Sasan Gir Forest (home to the Asiatic Lions) and I'm with you providing some information about the area and the animals found in. I'll use all those three sentence structures in concern.

1: A lion is friendly

This means there is a (one) lion somewhere who is friendly.

What that explanation says -- "the extinction happens to every member of that species." Correct! Compare it with this example. Any one tiger cannot be in danger to become extinct. And yes, species is a group noun and can take indefinite article. OALD example says -"a rare species of beetle."

Now,

2: The lions are friendly

This in this context means I'm talking about the specific lions, precisely I'm talking about the Asiatic Lions who are friendly and not the African lions.

What that explanation says --"the predicate is the characteristics of the species." True again! However, in my example, I'm not talking about extinction but friendliness and hence, it could be understood that I refer to the character of friendliness of particular lions. When we are talking about extinction, we should expect this to be true of any tiger because when the species of some animal gets extincted, you don't find that animal anymore.

And finally,

3: Lions are friendly

This takes the entire species of this animal. It talks about the characteristic of an animal. As we say dogs are loyal, which means take any dog, it's loyal because it's it character.

What that explanation says -- "we are talking about the tigers in aggregate." Correct! This matches with the example given above #3. Without any article, it means you are talking about the entire mass, species as a whole. Check - dogs are loyal to humans.


All in all, the plural generic seems to be easily understandable for English learners like me.
This site confirms it! :)

  • 5
    A tiger is friendly would give me the idea that any tiger I meet is supposed to be friendly, like in an elephant is big, a cow gives milk or a duck quacks. – oerkelens Aug 12 '14 at 13:06
  • @oerkelens Not sure about the two latter examples (maybe, their sentence structure is different) but about that friendly sentence, I'd prefer using A tiger is a friendly animal and this certainly talks about any tiger in the world! – Maulik V Aug 12 '14 at 13:14
8

Courtesy of John Lawler, to whom this very question was posed 17 years ago (reformatted below):

  1. Definite Generic: the + Singular Noun
    The tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.
  2. Plural Generic: <null> + Plural Noun
    Tigers are in danger of becoming extinct.
  3. Indefinite Generic: a + Singular Noun
    *A tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.

These are constructions, which means that the phrase itself, and its usage, have special grammar and special meanings. It's not that the articles the or a have special meaning, really -- they hardly have any meaning; rather, their use in these generic constructions marks them as special.

As to use and meaning, while there are many, many special cases and idioms, one can roughly equate the three generic noun phrase constructions with three different functions. Each refers to some species (of plant, animal, thing, person, cathedral, or whatever; not just biological species), but there are several ways of doing this:

  1. The Definite Generic refers to the Prototype of a species, roughly the image we associate with tiger. The tiger, as a prototype, has all the properties of anything we would call a tiger, except that it doesn't exist in an individual physical sense, like all real tigers do. This is a very abstract concept, and its use signals that the speaker is theorizing.
    The tiger is big. means the speaker believes that "bigness", in some comparative context, is a characteristic property of tigers, that we should expect this to be true of any tiger.

  2. The Plural Generic refers to the Norm of a species over its individuals, as perceived, of course, by the speaker, who is unlikely to have conducted tiger surveys, so the "statistics" here are very vague and impressional.
    Tigers are big. means the speaker believes that, on the average, any tiger is likely to be "big". This doesn't mean all tigers are big, though that's close. This is potentially a less abstract concept, since its use implies a generalization based on experience of several individuals.

  3. The Indefinite Generic refers to the Definition of a species, that is, those properties that are absolutely necessary for anything to be a member. It doesn't work as the subject of any predicate that isn't definitional. But with a definitional property, it's certainly true for any member.
    And that's one of the reasons why your sentence is ungrammatical. If one says *A tiger is in danger of becoming extinct. one is saying that being in danger of becoming extinct is one of the defining characteristics of tigerhood, which isn't true, after all. Tigers would still be tigers if they weren't endangered.

A similar situation is true in the following sentences:

  • The madrigal is polyphonic. (being polyphonic is characteristic of madrigrals)
  • Madrigals are polyphonic. (being polyphonic is normal for madrigrals)
  • A madrigal is polyphonic. (being polyphonic is required for madrigrals)

as opposed to

  • The madrigal is popular. (being popular is characteristic of madrigrals)
  • Madrigals are popular. (being popular is normal for madrigrals)
  • *A madrigal is popular. (being popular is required for madrigrals)

... and of course this last conclusion is wrong, producing the star. One other reason why the Indefinite Generic a tiger is ungrammatical with the predicate become extinct is that extinction can only happen to a species, and it means that every member of the species is dead. Now this can use the Definite Generic because it is characteristic of the species; it can use a Plural Generic because we're speaking of tigers in aggregate.

But it can't use an Indefinite Generic, for much the same reason you wouldn't say *Any tiger is in danger of becoming extinct. That is, becoming extinct isn't something that happens to individual tigers. There are lots more strange facts about generic constructions; indeed, I wrote a dissertation about them long ago. But I hope this helps some.

If you're interested in further academic literature on the subject, see Lawler's dissertation on the subject and this paper by BGU's Ariel Cohen.

  • 1
    The OP is quoting that very material and has asked for help understanding it. Regurgitating the same text is hardly likely to help. – Alan Carmack Sep 24 '16 at 21:35
7

You want to say "The tiger is in danger of becoming extinct." "The tiger" in this case is the whole species of tigers.

You can't say "a tiger is in danger of becoming extinct." "Extinct" can only happen to a whole species. "A tiger" means "some tiger somewhere," so it only means one, not all the tigers.

You can write "Tigers are in danger of becoming extinct." You need to have "are" instead of "is" because "tigers" is a plural noun.

You could write "The madrigal is a popular kind of song." If you write "A madrigal is popular" that just means that one of them, somewhere, is popular, and is not a very good sentence.

Does that make sense?

Here is a simpler explanation, based on the examples from the the British Council's Learn English website:

"The kangaroo is found only in Australia." I use "the" because I am talking about "the kind of animal called a kangaroo." That is, I am referring to a definite, particular kind of animal. I can also write, "Kangaroos are found only in Australia." The plural noun is fine, because I am talking about all the kangaroos, and that is a plural group.

But, I can't write "*A kangaroo is found only in Australia," because "found only in Australia" is a general statement about all the kangaroos. Writing "a" before a noun is like saying, "what I am about to say is true of one particular thing, but I am not talking about all of them." For example, if I say "I read a good book," the word "a" tells the listener that I am about to talk about only one book, not all books, and that I don't think they know yet which book I mean.

  • Thanks. Nevertheless, I cannot get the followings: and it means that every member is dead. In contrast, we we can use the Definite Generic because the predicate is characteristic of the species. We can also use a Plural Generic because we're speaking of tigers in aggregate. – nima Aug 7 '14 at 15:12
  • "Definite Generic" means you are using "the tiger" to refer to all the tigers. "Generic" means "referring to the whole group" rather than referring to one member of the group. "Plural Generic" means you're saying "tigers" to mean "all the tigers." The statement that "Every member is dead" means that all members of the species "tiger" have died. Does that make more sense? – Will Murphy Aug 7 '14 at 15:36
  • I do appreciate your help. Alas, I cannot understand the following: and it means that every member is dead. In contrast, we we can use the Definite Generic because the predicate is characteristic of the species. We can also use a Plural Generic because we're speaking of tigers in aggregate. – nima Aug 7 '14 at 16:58
  • I will try to explain those parts one at a time. First, I will explain "and it means that every member is dead." That is explaining what "extinct" means. Because saying "tigers are extinct" would mean that all the tigers were dead, we can't say that one tiger is extinct. Does that part make sense now? Let me know if I should try to explain it more clearly. – Will Murphy Aug 7 '14 at 17:16
  • Why don't we say species instead of a species? – nima Aug 8 '14 at 13:21
-3

The indefinite article 'a' in A tiger is endangered to become extinct. suggests that any tiger is endangered to become extinct. The tiger could be any from the whole world. In other words, the tiger is indefinite or unidentified.

Whereas, in the second example The tiger is endangered to become extinct. the definite article 'the' points towards a tiger that has already been talked about or referred to in a speech or text. In other words, the tiger can be identified or is known.

  • 1
    I'm afraid "endangered to become extinct" is unidiomatic. The question's phrasing is correct, though: "in danger of becoming extinct". Also, this question is about articles in generic statements. Although I agree that the in generics is related to identifiability, you appear to have misunderstood it as having non-generic (anaphoric) reference. These problems are probably why someone downvoted your answer. – snailcar Aug 7 '14 at 21:41

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