The confusion between "The" or "A" article



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.


Posted 2014-10-03T17:43:40.707

Reputation: 217

1You can start your first statement with either *A* or *The* (it doesn't make any real difference), but you have to continue with * 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. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-10-03T18:21:08.393

thanks @FumbleFingers can you please tell me why there should be "the" before king as well. – Tarun – 2014-10-03T18:26:37.213

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. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-10-03T19:44:08.767

Are you sure these examples are transcribed correctly? It seems like both the first two should say *“a* useful animal.” – Tyler James Young – 2014-10-03T21:23:14.167

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 – 2014-10-04T00:33:17.327

@Brillig: We're more likely to say "The* lion is the king of the beasts", because it's almost a "frozen form". But ["An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery"*]( and all that. English is pretty flexible.

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-10-04T01:21:43.897

@FumbleFingers an Englishman isn't a group. It's just a contraction of English man. It's a man, singular. So using "a" or "an" is appropriate. If you wanted to talk about the group you would say "English", as in "the English are the unfittest people to argue," not "a/an English are the unfittest people to argue". – Brillig – 2014-10-08T18:40:43.727

@Brillig: Not sure what you mean there. I cited Edmund Burke because I assumed no-one would quibble over his usage. Are you saying Burke isn't/wasn't a competent speaker, or that he was too long ago to be relevant to today's "grammar"?

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-10-08T20:13:09.657

@FumbleFingers I didn't say that your quotation was incorrect, merely that an Englishman is singular, not a group. Can you show me in your citation above where Burke claimed an Englishman is a group? I guess I can counter your Burke quotation with "hey, ho, the wind and the rain." So my Shakespeare trumps your Burke. Neither are relevant to this discussion though since neither are talking about when a word is used to represent a class not just an individual. Burke is talking about an indiviual, not a class. Think about it. – Brillig – 2014-10-08T21:34:53.320

@Fumblefingers maybe you are thinking that Burke is using this individual as a representative individual? As someone who represents the whole class? Possibly but it's still an individual not actually the class. The class would be "the English". You can use representative individuals in some cases, but not others. You can say, "an Englishman is proud," implying representation of all Englishmen. But you cannot say "an Englishman built an empire that circled the globe." That would have to be "the English..." – Brillig – 2014-10-08T21:45:59.427

@Brillig: I wasn't particularly thinking anything when I linked to that quote, except to back up my statement that "English is pretty flexible". Now you are making me think, I'll just cite G. K. Chesterton (another acknowledged master of the language): *Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode, The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road*. Your take on such forms strikes me as rather "literal-minded" - not really reflective of actual usage.

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-10-08T22:12:38.663

@FumbleFingers The use of "the" in your quotation above indicates he's talking about a class, not an individual. If I say "the American soldier" that's still a class, not an individual soldier. It's not exactly the same as all Americans, but it is a large groups of them. Same with "the English drunkard" or "the French wine lover" - I can refer to all of these as a class. But a French man or a Frenchman is an individual. Something using "the French" can be a class but not "a Frenchman" - that's an individual. Keep reaching. – Brillig – 2014-10-08T23:29:10.930

@Brillig: I still don't understand. Are you trying to teach me something? You said *"you should not say a lion is the king of beasts"* - to which I agreed, but I flagged up a contrary example to show it's not an absolute rule. Take it up with Chesterton if that bothers you. My purpose in posting here in the first place was simply to explain to OP that in such "individual representing general class" usages, definite/indefinite articles are both fine. "An* Englishman's home is his castle"* may be more common, but there's nothing wrong with using "The" there. End of lesson. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-10-09T12:39:49.477

@FumbleFingers you have a lot to learn; perhaps if you stop your rants which you call lessons and listen and think you will get there. Englishman is singular - you can say an, and if specific, you can say the, but it's still singular. The English is a group. Traits which only the group can have must be matched with the group form (the English) not signular form (an/the Englishman). Traits which an individual can have can represent the group, so you can say an Englishman is brave. But the English won the war. The lion is king. None of your many examples are contrary to this rule. – Brillig – 2014-10-09T19:34:05.923

@FumbleFingers just to review: your Burke ("an Englishman is the unfittest person to argue") is an individual (possibly representative individual) with a trait appropriate for an individual. Bad example because not a trait that only matches the group. Your Chesterton (the Roman, the English drunkard) are groups, just as the English sailor/soldier/politician/etc. are all groups. Chesterton is clearly referring to groups not an individual. So these are not comparable to "an Englishman" which is clearly an individual. Bad example again. Think, and try to come up with a relevant example. – Brillig – 2014-10-09T19:46:44.787

@FumbleFingers hint, because I'm tired of your bad examples. You need to find something that says "an Englishman/a Frenchman/etc." (clearly an individual) did something which only a group of English/of French/etc. could have done, such as "an Englishman fought Saladan and Napolean and Hitler" or "an Englishman built the great City of London." Failing that, which you will, you need to stop posting, because you're wrong. – Brillig – 2014-10-09T19:52:18.060



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

The cow is a useful animal for the 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)".

2) 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.


Posted 2014-10-03T17:43:40.707

Reputation: 209

1Thanks @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 – 2014-10-04T05:19:00.837

@Tarun, certainly. – Lucas – 2014-10-04T08:40:18.483