Uses of the definite article (the) in generic noun phrases



I was reading a paragraph about lions and I came up with a question about the definite article (the).

Let me tell you first what I know about it.

1->We use the before a singular noun (when we are sure about the noun. And the listener and the speaker both know about it).

2->We use the before a plural noun (again when we are sure about the noun, and we are not talking generally).

So, my question is why does the writer use the here as we are not talking about any specific lion or lions. We are talking generally.

The Paragraph:

Living in the grasslands, scrub, and open woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa, the lion is the second largest cat in the world. It is dwarfed slightly by the tiger, which is closely related and has a very similar body type.

Can we re-write the paragraph something like this:

Living in grasslands, scrub, and open woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa, lions are the second largest cat in the world. They are dwarfed slightly by tigers, they are closely related and has a very similar body type.


Posted 2014-05-03T09:39:47.860

Reputation: 3 999

2In your rewrite, the end of the second sentence should be "[...] and have a very similar body type." Since you are referring to tigers in the plural, the verb should be plural as well. – Doktor J – 2015-09-06T06:27:20.023


Suggested reading: To summarize it, the definite generic (the lion) refers to the prototype of a species, and the plural generic (lions) refers to the norm of a species. In this case the species of the lions living there, I believe.

– Damkerng T. – 2014-05-03T10:24:00.580



Yes, your rewrite is acceptable.

As for your confusion, it looks like you might have a case of DAMS (Definite Article Meaning Syndrome, a relatively common affliction that often affects English learners. It's chief symptom is confusion, generally caused by the erroneous belief that definite articles are only used for things previously referred to and specified in a narrative or conversation).

However, there are other uses of the definite article – ones that don't seem to get as much attention in ESL classes. For example, the word “the” can also be used:

  • to refer to things that are unique (The Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre.)
  • to make a generalized reference to something (Bob plays the piano.)
  • with adjectives, to refer to a group of people (This is another tax break for the rich.)
  • to indicate that there is enough of something (She will bake a pie, if she has the ingredients.)

In the passage you quote, the author elected to use the definite article to make a generalized reference to the flora and fauna of Africa: grassy woodlands, lions and tigers. The wording would only seem strange to someone afflicted with DAMS.

This is worth mentioning, too; under its entry for the, NOAD lists:

used with a singular noun to indicate that it represents a whole species or class : they placed the African elephant on their endangered list.

(Disclaimer: DAMS is an acronym I just made up for the purpose of this answer. It was intended to be humorous. However, this isn't the first time I've witnessed this confusion; I've encountered it several times on both ELL and ELU.)


Posted 2014-05-03T09:39:47.860

Reputation: 108 123

It was useful, but I didn't get generalized reference to something, it was good if you had explained it more, you mean a reference to something regarding a general scope, for example the lion, not any other animal? – Ahmad – 2015-06-21T19:41:04.697

3@Ahmad - The cheetah is the fastest animal on the planet. (That's not a particular cheetah; that refers to all cheetahs in general.). The learner might often struggle with this concept. (Again, that's not necessarily referring to a particular learner, but to all learners in general.) – J.R. – 2015-06-24T13:37:53.637

1@J.R. What is its difference with cheetah is the fastest animal on the planet or cheetahs are fastest animals on the planet – Ahmad – 2015-06-24T13:45:43.003

3@Ahmed - You wouldn't say the first without a "the" in front of cheetah, and you wouldn't say the second without a "the" in front of fastest. Other that that, though, it's just two ways of saying the same thing, so... The cheetah is the fastest animal on the planet. Cheetahs are the fastest animals on the planet. – J.R. – 2015-06-24T16:52:10.397

@J.R. Some sources say that "a" can be used for generalization as well. E.g. "A man needs friends". How to define which article use for which cases?

– origaminal – 2017-04-27T13:59:33.113

Why native speakers don't suffer from DAMS (even at a very young age)? – Zak – 2018-08-25T19:23:45.697

8I believe that in the latest diagnostics, which are learner- rather than pedagog-centered, this has been reclassified as Definite Article Meaning Nonstability Incomprehension Trauma. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-05-03T12:52:43.770