This question already has an answer here:

I had a friend recently ask me about the use of the particle "the" in different contexts that she was having trouble understanding and I found I was unable to explain the use. The lesson she had done was similar to this one:


Where "the" is explained as a word for a specific noun known to both speaker and the listener such as

The bike was red.

However a number of the examples she was given(and were not really explained in the material she showed me) were of the form

The bike is one of the most efficient means of transportation.


The squirrel is a small mammal

Neither of these examples are referring to a specific noun, they are referring to a generalization, "The bike" is true for every bike and the same for the squirrel example. Further to her confusion was that the sentences were not plural when referring to a generalization of "every bike" when she tried to correct the sentences as "the bikes are".

Would it be possible for someone to give me a explanation of this use or point me to something that has an explanation. I found it quite difficult to try and explain and the best I could come up with was that it's similar to "The idea of a bike is. . ." or "The idea of a squirrel is. . ." which I don't think is entirely accurate. The main trouble comes from "The" being used for a specific item, and in these cases the noun in question being used as a generalization. Am I just thinking about this wrong?

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, Misti, tchrist, ScotM, sumelic Jul 19 '15 at 23:47

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • I wish you the good luck explaining this. One could say the species is known to speaker and listener, or it could not be referred to with "the". No one asks "Teacher, what is the squirrel?" They ask "What is a squirrel?" – TRomano Jul 16 '15 at 9:53
  • It sounds to me like you already explained it. When it's a generalization, there is just the one, so it gets a definite article. What's missing? – Vladimir Kornea Jul 16 '15 at 10:46

This is known as generic reference.

Generic reference is used when one refers to a whole group or class, to generalize about all possible members of a group. There are five patterns one can use:


d.definite article PLUS singular count noun: It's astonishing what the gymnast can do. e.definite article PLUS plural nationality noun: The Chinese have an ancient culture.

from Special Cases in the Use of the Definite Article By Martine Johnston


Note: there are many online resources that discuss "generic reference" and they can be found by searching for that term possibly combined with "definite article".


This use of the definite article is a metaphoric means of connecting a specific instance of something with the class to which it belongs. So

The bicycle is one of the most efficient means of transportation.

means that the class of two-wheeled vehicles is at the top of the efficiency list.


Imagine student-teacher dialog like:

  • "What is a squirrel?"
  • "The 'squirrel' is an animal which lives in the forest, and eats etc."

Use of "the" implies that squirrels are interchangeable: if you know one then you know them all.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.