I was reading about articles in Wren & Martin and found the following explanation:

1)Use the definite article when a singular noun is meant to express a whole class.

The cow is a useful animal

[Or we can say, "cows" are useful animals]

2)Use the indefinite article in the sense of "any" to single out an individual as the representative of a class; as,

A cow is a useful animal.

Can you please explain me the difference between 1 and 2.

I also found a given below sentence in wren & martyn's exercise.

__ lion is ___ king of beasts

As per above given explanation of definite and indefinite article, I am not sure which one should be correct: "The lion" or "A lion", or both are correct.

Could you please help me understand the difference better.

  • 2
    You can start your first statement with either A or The (it doesn't make any real difference), but you have to continue with ...is a useful animal. With the "lion" version it has to be the king of beasts (because there can only be one king) - in most cases native speakers would reflect that by starting with the lion, but a would be acceptable (if unlikely) there. Oct 3, 2014 at 18:21
  • thanks @FumbleFingers can you please tell me why there should be "the" before king as well.
    – Tarun
    Oct 3, 2014 at 18:26
  • 1
    As I said, because normally there's only one "king" of any specific realm at any specific time, native speakers would normally refer to him as the king. That's because the usually implies the only possible, single, specific referent, whereas a/an usually implies any one of potentially many possible referents. Oct 3, 2014 at 19:44
  • Are you sure these examples are transcribed correctly? It seems like both the first two should say “a useful animal.” Oct 3, 2014 at 21:23
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers the species of lion is considered the king of beasts because lions are at the top of the food chain among beasts (basically, excluding man). However there is no specific lion that is an actual king, or above any other lion. So while you can say a man is the home run king of baseball, you should not say a lion is the king of beasts. It should be the lion is the king of beasts, because that title only applies to the species not to any individual lion.
    – Brillig
    Oct 4, 2014 at 0:33

1 Answer 1

  1. Use definite article, when a singular noun is meant to express a whole class:

    The cow is a useful animal for mankind The cow is an animal species useful for the homo sapiens (The) cows are useful animals for farmers

Here you are talking about classes (the cow species, the mankind, the farmers): "the cows (all of them as a group) are useful for the human beings (again all of them)".

  1. Use indefinite article, in the sense of any, to single out an individual as the representative of a class:

    A cow is a useful animal for a farmer A herd of cows is useful for a farmer

In the last case you are not talking about class of the cows or the farmers, but about a single, indefinite (unknown or irrelevant the actual identity) cow (or herd of cows) and farmer.

  • 1
    Thanks @lucas so the answer should be "The lion is the king of beasts" , As here we are talking about class of lion of instead of a single, indefinite lion
    – Tarun
    Oct 4, 2014 at 5:19
  • @Tarun, certainly.
    – Lucas
    Oct 4, 2014 at 8:40
  • 1
    @Lucas you would not usually use "THE mankind" like this. Mankind/Humankind doesn't need an article. Likewise, you wouldn't say "for THE homo sapiens" unless you were comparing humans (or a single human, because that's actually the singular) to other species. You WOULD use "the" in "for THE human race"
    – JohnGH
    Jan 4, 2021 at 18:39

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .