I learned in class that:

a. A tiger is a dangerous animal.

b. Tigers are dangerous animals.

c. The tiger is a dangerous animal.

These three sentences are used generically.

But I just saw:

  1. The tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.
  2. Tigers are in danger of becoming extinct.
  3. A tiger is in danger of becoming extinct.

the previous sentences and number '1' and '2' are used generically but example 3. is not.

Is there anyone who can tell me why the latter examples are different from the former ones? Also, is there any difference in meaning depending on the article?

  • 1
    Because a tiger can rip your throat out (any individual tiger is dangerous to humans), but his death would not render tigers, as a species, extinct. – Dan Bron Jun 8 '15 at 15:14
  • You mean when an indefinite article is used generically, it has to represent the characteristic of the following noun. Is it right? – Hee Jun 8 '15 at 15:28
  • No, I mean in both a. and 1., a tiger is not being used generically. At least not in the same sense as the tiger or tigers. – Dan Bron Jun 8 '15 at 15:29
  • #3 is just wrong. A tiger can't become extinct. Extinction is something that happens to a species, and a single tiger is not a species. – Barmar Jun 8 '15 at 15:32

a tiger is not a generic phrase referring to all tigers in general. It means a single tiger, although it's not specific about which tiger. So statement "a" is true as a consequence of the truth of statements "b" and "c" -- any individual tiger is likely to be dangerous because tigers in general are dangerous.

The distinction in that case is subtle, and can often be ignored because of the correlation between the two statements. But in the second group of statements, the distinction is significant. "Extinction" is something that can only happen to a species as a group, not an individual member of the species. So statement "3" is not meaningful, because an individual tiger cannot become extinct. "1" and "2" refer to the entire species (genus, actually, but this isn't a taxonomy blog) of tigers, which is capable of extinction.

The tiger can be used both specifically and generically, depending on the context. If the preceding text has made it clear that there's only a single tiger that could be referred to, then it's specific to that tiger. For example:

There's a housecat and a tiger in the room. The tiger is dangerous.

In this case, it's referring to the specific tiger in the room.

  • You said that 'a tiger is dangerous.' is used generically because tigers are dangerous in general. Then could we say 'a tiger is in danger of becoming extinct' used as generically because tigers in general are in danger of extinction? – Hee Jun 8 '15 at 15:51
  • No, we can't, and I explained why. A single tiger can be dangerous, but a single tiger can't be extinct. – Barmar Jun 8 '15 at 15:52
  • It's not a grammatical issue, it's matter of what the word "extinct" means. Its meaning can only be applied to a whole species, not individual members. – Barmar Jun 8 '15 at 15:53

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