How to Use "A" and "The" to Talk About Things in General

Which of the following is correct?

  1. Dogs are man’s best friend.
  2. The dog is man’s best friend.

Everyone would agree that the first sentence is correct. But did you know that the second sentence is as well?

In fact, the poem that made this phrase famous goes:

The dog is man's best friend.
He has a tail on one end.
Up in front he has teeth.
And four legs underneath.

- Ogden Nash, "An Introduction to Dogs" (1941)

You might be thinking, "but doesn’t 'the dog' refer to one particular dog?" However in this sentence, "the dog" refers to dogs in general. In today's post, we will look at all the different ways you can make "generic references" to things in English.

1. Plural

In English conversation and writing, the plural is the most common form of generic reference.

  • I like dogs more than cats.
  • Pandas are an endangered species.
  • Teachers should care about their students.

And as you can see, no article is used with the plural.

2. “The”

You'll sometimes also hear native English speakers use the definite article "the" to refer to something general. This is called the "definite generic reference" or the "definite generic."

  • The dog is man's best friend. [= Dogs are our best friends.]
  • The panda is an endangered species. [= Pandas are an endangered species.]

In these sentences, we're not using "the" to talk about a specific dog or panda. We're using it to talk about a specific category or type of nouns that are known as "dog" and "panda."

You will often hear the definite generic used in educational materials, such as textbooks and documentaries, especially if they are about a scientific topic.

  • The maple tree is originally from Asia.
  • The coronavirus is a type of virus which has spikes on its surface.

English speakers also use the definite generic when referring to machines and musical instruments.

  • My son is learning to play the piano.
  • The computer was a great invention.

You'll sometimes see the definite generic used when referring to nationalities and ethnicities: e.g. “the French” and “the Japanese.” However, this sounds a little old-fashioned, so just use the plural: i.e. "French people" or "Japanese people."

3. “A/An”

The last way to talk about something in general is to use the indefinite article "a/an." This is called "indefinite generic reference" or the "indefinite generic."

  • A pigeon can fly long distances without getting lost. [= Pigeons can fly ... ]
  • A child needs their parents. [= Children need their parents.]

You'll often hear "a/an" used when someone shares their opinion about how certain people should behave.

  • A teacher should care about their students. [= A good teacher ... ]
  • A leader must lead with actions not words. [= A true leader ... ]

When English speakers use the indefinite generic, they're actually picturing one typical member of the group.

  • A pigeon can fly long distances without getting lost. [= "A typical pigeon can ... "]
  • A teacher should care about their students. [= "Someone who is a teacher should ..."]

So when you're picturing a group as a whole, don't use "a/an."

  • Pandas are endangered. [In your mind, you are thinking about pandas as a whole – not a typical panda – so "a panda" would not make sense.]
  • I like dogs. [You are picturing dogs in general, so "a dog" would not make sense.]

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