I was learning about using "a" and "the" today, and was confused about:

What is the word "the" doing in these sentences?

The wolf is a very dangerous animal. The kangaroo comes from Australia.

I think it refers to "wolves in general" or "all wolves"? So the same as:

Wolves are very dangerous animals. Kangaroos come from Australia.

What is the rule here?

Also, a similar thing with "a". e.g.

A man needs friends.

This refers to all men / men in general I think?

When do we use "the" and "a / an" in this way? I've tried searching but i really don't know what keywords to use other than "the" and "a" which didn't help much. Thanks.


2 Answers 2


These are all generic noun phrases. The difference between the wolf and wolves is that the former refers to the prototypical wolf and the latter to "the Norm of a species over its individuals, as perceived, of course, by the speaker."

See the linguist John Lawler's oft-cited piece for further explanation. Don't settle for less precise explanations, which abound.

To me man is an interesting noun. It is a count noun, but as a non-count noun (example: Man's inhumanity to man) it works differently from other nouns.

So we can say:

Man is an animal when refering to either humans or human males in general, but not wolf is an animal even refering to wolves in general. But we wouldn't say the man is an animal when we are talking about humans or human males in general.


In the sentence, "The wolf is a very dangerous animal", "the wolf" refers to the species, i.e. the category of animals that we call "wolf" (scientific name "Canis lupus"). The sentence describes a characteristic of the wolf as a species.

The sentence, "Wolves are very dangerous animals." has essentially the same meaning, but it makes a statement about all the individuals that make up the species.

You could says that the statement, "The wolf is a dangerous animal" is based on repeated observation that wolves are (and always have been) dangerous animals.

When someone says, "A man needs friends", they are typically thinking of a specific person, and they are making this statement because they think that "all men need friends."

  • 1
    What specific person are you thinking about when you say A man needs friends? Jul 26, 2016 at 14:39
  • +1 up to the "a man needs friends" remark. The part about thinking of a specific person is arbitrary and can be removed.
    – TimR
    Jul 26, 2016 at 14:51
  • @AlanCarmack There is no general answer to that question, since it depends on the context. For example, if the speaker has been talking about himself, the phrase "a man" can refer to himself. If he has been talking about another man, "a man" may refer to that person.
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 26, 2016 at 14:51
  • Can those who downvoted my response please explain their reasons?
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 27, 2016 at 8:39

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