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Why do we say "this is a cat" or "this is a forty spotted pardalote" but "this is velociraptor" with no the or a?

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I don't understand this question. Surely the asker knows about proximity, presence and existence. I had no trouble saying, "That is a T-Rex" to my daughter when pointing to a picture in a book. I don't understand your question at all. I don't understand what you don't understand. –  Blessed Geek Feb 5 '13 at 13:15
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It's an idiom; a holdover from older patterns. Our Neanderthal ancestors spoke Old English which did not have articles. A common saying was 'See dinosaur run' (they didn't have a rich vocabulary in the different species yet). Even though there were no velociraptors in England at the time, the pattern is kept for all dinosaurs. –  Mitch Feb 5 '13 at 13:18
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Articles don't fossilize well. –  John Lawler Feb 5 '13 at 16:08

2 Answers 2

We don't. A search for "this is a velociraptor" returns twice as many results as "this is velocipaptor", and of the latter many results are actually:

  1. "This is a velociraptor" or other results that don't match the phrase perfectly.
  2. Where "this is a velociraptor" is part of a phrase where velociraptor is modifying another noun ("this is velociraptor country").
  3. Where it's the middle of a phrase that likewise uses it differently ("The proper reaction to this is velociraptor noises").
  4. This question.
  5. Cases where velociraptor is used as the name of a character or product ("This is Velociraptor 2.0. He has 3 motors and 1 sensors." referring to a Lego project).

Only a very few uses match what you describe, and they might well have been typos.

It certainly is used in the likes of Discovery channel programmes, but there it is for effect. Here, using it as if it is the name of a given individual dinosaur adds an immediacy and sense of closeness as they go on to describe its qualities; generally focusing on the damage it could do to prey (which says as much about the Discovery channel as it does about velociraptors). It also highlights the idea that the technology used to reproduce what a velociraptor looked and moved like is "introducing" you to one.

And it does work, in my opinion and is hence a bit of poetic license worth taking. It doesn't work as well with things you are familiar with, with shorter names, or with multi-part names ("This is great white shark" doesn't work as well as "This is shark"). But it can still be used with them, or indeed with anything, and it sometimes is.

(With more familiar things, rather than add a sense of immediacy, it can give a sense of distance and seeing afresh. I can recall a British nature show that used "this is cat" in examining the anatomy of a cat, and it did give an impression of "seeing for the first time" a very familiar animal).

Normally though, we use a/an and the with prehistoric animals.

The only species name that is more often found without an article than with is man, where the lack of article highlights that we are considering people as a species rather than as individuals. This is a matter of the species name matching one we have such heavy use of in other contexts, and is also less common now that a human would be preferred in most cases of talking about our species.

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+1 And of course one would hunt [Ø] velociraptor. –  StoneyB Feb 5 '13 at 10:38
    
@StoneyB I'll stick to hunting pheasant, if you don't mind. ;) –  Jon Hanna Feb 5 '13 at 10:54

Because the thing being described is not a velociraptor but a trace (or perhaps even an inference drawn from that trace) left by the presence of one of those animals at some time in the distant past.

If I ever encounter an actual living specimen of a "prehistoric" animal, you may be assured that I will say. "Oh look, there is A velociraptor."

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If we use painting, models or CGI to produce a representation of a velociraptor, it is no less real than if we do the same thing of a dormouse. (And no more real than if we do it of a hippogryph). –  Jon Hanna Feb 5 '13 at 11:04
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If I saw a carnivorous dinosaur in the street, there are many things I might say, but I do not think "Oh look, there is a velociraptor." would be one of them. –  TimLymington Feb 5 '13 at 22:21

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