In English, generic reference takes three possible forms:

A. Cats are cute.

B. A cat is cute.

C. The cat is cute.

But the names of nationalities seem to me to make an exception to this rule. As far as I know, when referring to all the members of a nation, you can only use the C version: The Italians are musical, or The French are posh, or The British are cold.

Why is it that in this case only C is considered grammatically correct? If all the Italians, or all the French, or all the British are musical, posh, or cold, why can't we also say:

A. *Italians are... // *French are... // *British are...


B. *An Italian is... // *A French is... // *A British is...



4 Answers 4


I don’t agree with the premise. We can, with generic reference, say all of the following:

The Italians are musical, but the British excel in poetry.

Italians may be musical, but you can’t beat Germans for a good brass band.

The Italian is musical, where the Frenchman is artistic.

An Italian is musical, but a Spaniard is more passionate.

Your Italian is musical, but your Englishman prefers football.

  • 1
    National stereotypes would have it that: European heaven is where: Germans are engineers, British are policemen, the cooks are French, the Italians are lovers, and the whole enterprise is organised by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are Germans, the cooks are British, the French are engineers, the Swiss are lovers and the whole enterprise is managed by Italians. But stereotypes are a load of codswallop.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 19:20
  • 3
    And having said all that let me add that Italy is my favourite European country.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 19:46

There are three different types of generic Noun Phrase, distinguished by their articles.
They are similar in meaning -- positing some proposition over a set -- but they are different.

Plural Generic NPs use no article.

  • Pandas are found in China.

Definite Generic NPs use a definite article with a singular noun.

  • The panda is found in China.

Indefinite Generic NPs use an indefinite article with a singular noun.

  • *A panda is found in China.

Note that the last sentence is ungrammatical, while these three are all fine:

  • Pandas eat bamboo.
  • The panda eats bamboo.
  • A panda eats bamboo.

As for national or cultural names, these vary with the type of generalization being expressed.
And also with the socioeconomic status, and general prejudice against, such groups.

On the whole, generic expressions about human groups are best avoided;
they are far more apt to shed heat than light.


Your belief is incorrect. Both of the following are acceptable and effectively synonymous:

  1. The Italians are musical.
  2. Italians are musical.

Furthermore, #2 is actually more common than #1 and seems more natural to me.


For what it's worth, in my American dialect, I would never use "An Italian" to mean an Italian person. I know you do that in other languages, like French, but I wouldn't say that in English.

Frankly, I wouldn't say "A cat is cute" either. To me, that construction suggests that every single possible cat is cute, which isn't true. "Cats are cute" only suggests that most cats are cute. at least that's how I would use that construction.

I might say "A square is a rhombus", because that is literally true for every single square.

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