3

I'm talking to my (nonexistent) two-year-old son, and he asks me: "Daddy! What's cat? What's dog?", and I point at a cat and then at a dog, saying:

This is (a) cat; that is (a) dog.

There shouldn't be a serious problem with including the indefinite article. But is it not better to leave it out in this context? after all, I'm not concerned with that individual cat; I just want to show him what the word cat means.

I guess this is the same as the situation I was in with my (imaginary) ten-year-old daughter, when she asked me: "Daddy! What does 'a schizophrenic' mean?", and I confidently answered: "Honey, if you want to know about the word, you don't need to put 'a' before it. Here's a dictionary; look 'schizophrenic' up."

So, a cat, or cat?


Addendum:
I understand that This is cat is normally an ungrammatical sentence. But here I'm presenting a context that kind of reverses the positions of Subject and Subject Complement. That is, if I say

This is 'cat'.

with a stress on This and a lowering tone for the rest of the sentence, what I actually mean is

'Cat' is this. = 'Cat' means this.

And no, I'm not asking about the adjective schizophrenic. It's the noun.


Addendum #2:
Turns out my mistake (or one of my mistakes) was in thinking that is can be used like means. I'm accepting (the first half of) @cathygomez's answer for pointing that out.

  • 4
    You'd be teaching non-existent English to your non-existent child. With your example of schizophrenic, a person with that illness is being conflated with the word for a person with that illness. Same with your animal examples. You're not pointing at the words, you're pointing at the animals. What you're pointing at is not 'cat' but 'a cat', that is, an instance of the class 'cat'. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 15 '16 at 15:04
  • 2
    If you had two cans and one contained ground up cat and the other ground up dog (that is, cat meat and dog meat), you could easily use this is cat (or cat is this) and this is dog (or dog is this). – Alan Carmack Apr 15 '16 at 19:08
  • Are you trying to explain to your child the definition of the word "cat"? (This is an example of what the word "cat" refers to.) Or are you trying to point out to your child that an actual cat is an example of the concept of a cat? (See this? It's an instance of the concept of cats.) "This is 'cat'" does the former. "This is a cat" does the latter – David Schwartz Apr 15 '16 at 19:14
  • 3
    I am cat. I am ((un)fortunately?) not a cat. – cat Apr 15 '16 at 21:49
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    If the idea is to teach your child English, then teach him English. Don't teach him your own made-up dialect that doesn't require determiners. – Dawood says reinstate Monica Apr 16 '16 at 8:42
17

When you give a definition for a word, don't you usually say something like this

A cat is a four-legged animal with ...

or this?

Schizophrenic means ...

I don't think you should drop the article when you're going for the first type of response. That way, you're teaching the two-year-old about grammar rules while you're at it.

I don't think it matters whether you're referring to a specific cat or not, because "Cat is a four-legged animal ..." is not grammatically correct. You either say "A cat" or "The cat", else you say "Cats are ..."

In any case, when you showed your imaginary son the picture of a cat and a dog, it didn't matter that you weren't talking about that specific cat or dog, because at that point, you were referring to a specific cat and dog (the ones in the pictures).

  • @Færd Fixed! (filler) – cat Apr 15 '16 at 23:54
  • .. would continuing it as "Schizophrenic means someone is xyz" make it grammatically correct? – Insane Apr 16 '16 at 14:01
  • 1
    @Insane: No. If you look in any good dictionary, it should say something like "Someone who is schizophrenic suffers from a mental illness called schizophrenia in which ...". – user21820 Apr 17 '16 at 3:16
  • @user21820 Right I know that's proper but I was just wondering if what I said is technically correct. Thanks for explaining – Insane Apr 17 '16 at 3:31
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    @Insane: Your suggestion is okay for informal speech, but just technically not grammatical, because "someone is xyz" is a true-false statement but "schizophrenic" is not. Hope this makes it clearer! – user21820 Apr 17 '16 at 4:03
7

When a child sees a line drawing of a cat in a child's book, with the word 'cat' below it, the child understands that the drawing is only a crude representation of a cat. When he or she looks around the world, the cats and dogs are quite different from their line drawings, although in the line drawings the "outline" or "shape" of the animal is recognizable.

The child understands the page to be saying:

'cat' is our word for animals which look like this line drawing.

The child can encounter a strange word, never before seen in any picture book.

Daddy, what does (the word) 'aardvark' mean?

If the child knows that 'aardvark' refers to some kind of animal, the child can ask

What does an aardvark look like?

In the first question, the child wants to know about the word. In the second question, the child wants to know about the animal, and is willing to generalize about all aardvarks based on the answer to the question about an aardvark, that is, any and every aardvark, not a particular aardvark.

When the child points at a real-world cat and says

That is a cat.

the child is saying "that animal is one of the class of animals we call 'cat'.

So the indefinite article refers to a) an instance of the class and b) an instance of the class understood to be representative of any and every instance of the class.

If we add a modifier, we can express the idea of "instance" while overriding the idea of representative.

That is a strange cat as it has no tail.

That is a cat but it has no tail.

  • But when I want to define the word cat and say to my child "This is cat", what I actually mean is "'Cat' means this". Is this still unacceptable to you? – Færd Apr 15 '16 at 15:51
  • Never mind :). Solved. – Færd Apr 15 '16 at 17:14
  • In "This is cat", what is the referent of "this"? "is" <> "means". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 15 '16 at 18:22
  • I wanted "This is 'cat'" to mean "This thing that's in front of us is what the word 'cat' means". So the referent of 'this' is the outer object before our eyes, which is looked at as a representative of its class. I guess this would work if is could be used instead of means, but it can't, apparently. – Færd Apr 15 '16 at 18:58
  • 1
    A noun does not mean an actual object in the real world. A common noun refers to a class of objects which has instance members. When we use the indefinite article ("a cat") we're referring either to a real-world instance of the class ("I can see that a cat has scratched your arm") or to a hypothetical representative instance of the class, a metonymic proxy for the class as a whole ("A cat has claws"). – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 15 '16 at 19:48
6

Children (like the rest of us, really) learn by absorbing information. In particular, during their formative years, they are learning how to speak English by hearing you speak English. Speaking broken English is not helpful, regardless of whether or not teaching grammar was the goal of the moment.

5

Cat is a word: a cat is an animal. When explaining things to a two year old, you are not just explaining what the word means, you are showing the child how to construct a proper sentence. So, when you point at an animal, you say "This is a cat".

When your daughter asks what "a schizophrenic" means, you reply that it's a person who suffers from schizophrenia (or whatever other definition you feel is appropriate).

When your daughter asks what "schizophrenic" means, you say that it's a word used to describe somebody that suffers from schizophrenia.

One definition is appropriate for the noun use: the other for the adjective use.

1

It would be grammatically take out the determiner (a) if, it was a proper noun.

Daddy? what's that cat's name?

That is Mittens

But if it's just a noun then you need the determiner. (In most cases, but there are exceptions to this rule).

Daddy what's cat?

That's (a) cat.

0

If a child is very young, I think that if you can get the child to understand that the four legged creature is "dog", that is more important than getting the very young child to understand the sentence structure and the difference between the creature's type or the creature's name. Then, after you see eight more creatures named "dog", your child will intuitively start to understand that the word refers to that type of animal, and not just one single animal.

Normally, I think of the name of an animal as an identifier of an individual creature. e.g., Spot, Rover, Daisy, Snoopy.

However, people also refer to the "type" of an animal (e.g. "dog") as the "name" of the animal. (In this case, I would say the word name is referring to the name of the type of the animal.)

e.g., the super-hilarious "Name an animal with three letters in its name" [video on YouTube]. This could also have been said as, "Tell me about an animal where the name of the animal's type is three letters long." (Except, this native speaker did want to complete the sentence quickly.)

This is a tricky question, because the article is definitely required to identify a type of animal. e.g., "That is a dog" is the correct way to say the type of dog. If you don't use the article, then it sounds like a name. e.g., "That is Scoopy-Doo" is the correct way to say the name. However, saying "That is dog" sounds acceptable (not wonderful, not great, but rather acceptable) because people do speak like that, sometimes.

Leaving off the article is not preferred, though. If the article is left off, then that is less clear.

"Daddy! What does 'a schizophrenic' mean?"

In general, I think it is more clear to use the word "schizophrenic" as an adjective. For example, "a schizophrenic person". So, "That person is schizophrenic" makes sense, because the form of that sentence is similar saying "That person is tall". However, I do believe the word "schizophrenic" can also be used as a noun. So, in the phrase "a schizophrenic [person]", the word person is optional. So, saying "That person is a schizophrenic" could work.

Those sentences are both valid because the word "schizophrenic" can be used in both ways. Some other words are not like that. For example, "He is professional baseball player" is bad. That needs the article "a". Saying "He is a slow" is also incomplete. ("He is slow" is fine. Or, "he is a slow person".)

Other examples:

  • "He is an African". Okay, African is a noun.
  • "He is African". Okay, African is an adjective.
  • "He is an American". Okay, American is a noun.
  • "He is American". Okay, American is an adjective.
  • "He is a European". Okay, European is a noun. (You get two extra points if you realize why I said "a" instead of "an", despite the next word starting with the letter E.)
  • "He is European". Okay, European is an adjective.
  • "He is French". Okay, French is an adjective.
  • "He is a Frenchman". Okay, "Frenchmen is a noun."
  • "He is a French" -- bad. A person is not a French. The word "French" is not a valid noun.

In summary, deciding to use the article (the word "a") affects the structure of the sentence, by deciding whether the next word is a noun or an adjective. Sometimes you can get away with using it or not using it. This is not always true.

  • Thanks for your well-written answer TOOGAM, but I'm afraid I am misunderstood here once again. For one thing, I'm not sure why you're trying to explain how to use nouns and adjectives, while I've stated that I want to talk about the word (in and of itself). No matter it's the adjective African or the noun African, when you want to mention the word itself you say "African" (no article); e.g.: "African means from Africa (the adjective), or someone from Africa (the noun).". I prefer not to go on and try to explain myself any more, but, again, thanks. – Færd Apr 17 '16 at 1:50

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