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I am struggling with English articles. Do these two sentences mean the same?

a) A computer is a useful machine in graphic design.

b) The computer is a useful machine in graphic design. (meaning all computers as a group, not one specific computer)

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    'A computer' is OK, and 'the computer' is also OK, as explained here Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 20:05
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    Does this answer your question? article usage, He invented THE slide rule
    – elluser
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 20:29
  • Better than either would be "Computers are useful machines in graphic design"
    – James K
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 21:11
  • The invented the slide rule. is not the same case as here.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 22:00
  • @JamesK: It's neither better nor worse. "The computer is..." or "Computers are..." are both 100% equivalent for this purpose. "A computer is..." changes the feel of the sentence a tiny bit, but it's still 100% fine. Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 12:22

1 Answer 1

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There is one context where a/the have the same meaning.

  • A computer is a useful machine in graphic design.
  • The computer is a useful machine in graphic design.

Bear in mind, that generally speaking, those mean the same thing.

HOWEVER, using the like that is considered formal English:

The dog is a noble beast.

I'll repeat that: generalities in English are usually expressed with the determiner a or a plural noun.

  • A dog is a noble beast. [generality, standard]
  • Dogs are noble beasts. [generality, standard]
  • The dog is a noble beast. [generality, formal]
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    If you reversed the first two phrasings in your final set of three, they'd be in rising order of "formality". Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 23:03
  • @FumbleFingers I disagree with you.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 23:43
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    The guy down the pub probably wouldn't say his dog was a "noble beast" anyway, so we're already in a relatively raised register. But imho A pig is a dirty animal is a lot more "formal / declamatory" than Pigs are dirty animals in the context of "pub talk". Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 11:36
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    @FumbleFingers Really, pub talk? How about: two Cambridge or Oxford professors waxing lyrical over a whiskey?
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 15:26

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