How do you understand difference between 'all things of that kind' and 'all the things referred to by a noun'?


We use a/an with a singular noun to say something about all things of that kind: A man needs friends. (= All men need friends) A dog likes to eat meat. (= All dogs like to eat meat)

We use the definite article to say something about all the things referred to by a noun: The wolf is not really a dangerous animal (= Wolves are not really dangerous animals)

  • I don't think I'd generally say "A dog likes to eat meat"... I'd say "Dogs like to eat meat". I'd be more likely to say "The wolf is not really a dangerous animal" than to say the dog one... but I'd still be more likely to use "Wolves are not really dangerous animals". So, I guess what I'm saying is that, when generalizing, I tend to avoid using the singular form at all. – Catija Jul 20 '16 at 15:29
  • It's all here, in John Lawler's explanation about the different generic noun phrases. – Alan Carmack Jul 20 '16 at 16:20

Whatever your source is for those explanations, it's wrong, or at least oversimplifying. Both of these are examples of a (rather rare) universal statement. Use of "the" in such statements is now rather old-fashioned, and would be regarded as offensive if used of humans.

Otherwise I can see no practical difference between the two. "The dog ... " refers to an archetypical dog, representing all dogs; "A dog" refers to an arbitrary, and probably typical dog, probably also representing all dogs.

By far the most common way of expressing such universals is with a plural (without "all" unless you are intending to make a wholly universal statement).

Men need friends

Dogs like meat

  • How about "The iPhone 7 will be groundbreaking" or "even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day"? In these examples, the use of the plural would not be as natural in modern English. – grateful Jul 20 '16 at 18:40
  • @grateful So what would be the choice in such cases? "the" or "a" preferrable? – origaminal Apr 27 '17 at 13:39
  • 2
    Definitely "the iPhone 7" in this case, @origaminal, because it's referring to the model, or the design, rather than any indiivdual phone. But "a stopped clock", because this is any (individual) stopped clock. – Colin Fine Apr 30 '17 at 17:20

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